New Right gropes for old momentum. Disappointed by Reagan, movement leaders plot political comeback

A decade ago a band of conservative activists roared out of right field and shook up the game of American politics. They flexed their muscles in the 1978 congressional campaign, then won the season in 1980, helping to bench liberal lawmakers by the teamful and elevate to the presidency a politician who spoke their language.

Now, with the Reagan era near its end, the members of the New Right do not know what to do next. Many have long been disappointed with the President and his administration, but recent developments - the stirrings of d'etente with the Soviets, for example, and a White House agreement with Congress to raise taxes - have deepened their sense of disillusionment and even betrayal.

At the same time, their movement is becalmed. Fund raising is off, and the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), once the conservative movement's right fist, is racked by dissent. Surveys depict a younger generation with views antithetical to the New Right's social agenda. The stock market plunge has intensified doubts about the supply-side economic theory the New Right championed.

Most bitter for many conservatives, the leading candidate to replace President Reagan at the head of the Republican ticket is not Rep. Jack Kemp (R) of New York, the standard-bearer of the New Right, but Vice-President George Bush, a symbol of establishment Republicanism.

Conservative leaders, sensing that their movement has lost its power, are groping for ways to recapture the momentum of yore. They have begun to close ranks and plot strategy for the 1988 campaign. Their task is not an easy one, however. Theories abound, but many conservatives are hard pressed to say precisely what has gone wrong and why, or how the movement's problems ought to be addressed.

``There's something out there that's different - something that's gone awry, something that's gone wrong,'' says Richard Viguerie, a pioneer of the direct-mail fund-raising techniques that helped fuel many of the New Right's most spectacular successes. ``Things aren't working the way they used to.''

The seeds of the New Right can be traced from the end of the McCarthy era, but it began to emerge as a political force while the Republican Party struggled to recover from the Watergate scandal.

Then several factors conspired to transport the New Right from the fringe to the center of a national debate over the country's future. These included the public perception of growing irresolution in US foreign policy, the alienation of conservative blue-collar and fundamentalist Christians from the Democratic Party, and an anemic economy.

Ronald Reagan rode to the presidency in 1980 on public dissatisfaction over such disparate issues as abortion-on-demand, income-tax bracket creep and the Panama Canal treaty. Republicans captured a Senate majority and felt they had come close to doing so in the House of Representatives.

All of which led to a problem. ``The decline of the movement began with the success of the Reagan presidency,'' says Rep. Vin Weber (R) of Minnesota, one of the conservatives who was swept into office with Reagan. ``The grass roots looked to the White House and said, `We're taken care of.'''

The grass roots were mistaken. Republicans suffered reversals in 1982 and logged a disappointing performance in the 1984 congressional races. By the time the Democrats recaptured the Senate last fall, administration officials rarely mentioned the proposed balanced budget amendment, legislation to reintroduce school prayer or ban abortion, and other conservative priorities on which Reagan had once campaigned.

``It all precipitated a further decline,'' says Howard Phillips, president of the Conservative Caucus, one of the first New Right political-action committees. ``The abandonment of the conservative agenda inculcated a sense of futility among conservatives.''

Consequently, PACs like the Conservative Caucus, once cash magnets, have had to work harder to raise less money. At the same time, a number of them have been torn by internal conflict.

Since the death of founder Terry Dolan, for example, NCPAC has been buffeted by a number of lawsuits. At the same time, its income for the first six months of this year has fallen to $1.1 million, compared with $3 million in 1985 and $2.6 million in 1983.

``People will give, but only for so long,'' says Beverly LaHaye, president of Concerned Women for America, a conservative legal affairs and lobbying group. ``They want to see some victories.''

Or some bruising fights. Yale Burton Pines, senior vice-president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, says that the conservative movement has gone through a period much like the environmental movement in the late 1970s. ``Go ask the Sierra Club,'' he says. ``The worst time for fund raising was during the Carter administration, the best time was when James Watt was interior secretary.''

Conservative groups reaped a bonanza during last summer's testimony by Lt. Col. Oliver North before the congressional Iran-contra committees. ``It was a big boost for fund raising because there was a clear-cut adversary - the committee,'' explains Mr. Phillips. Indeed, conservative leaders look to the North response as evidence that, in a fight, the old enthusiasm can still be found.

Pat Robertson's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination is also giving hope to conservative leaders, who believe his candidacy will galvanize evangelical voters for the conservative cause in a way no other candidate, including Reagan, has.

The Rev. Jerry Nims, president of Moral Majority, says that evangelical preachers are less shy about urging their flocks to political activism. ``There's some very strong thinking going on that we can be more active in the system than was previously thought to be justified from a biblical point of view,'' he says.

Conservative leaders are also heartened by a generation of young, well-educated, fiercely dedicated conservatives who are just beginning to emerge from the nation's universities and into the political culture.

``This administration has credentialed a lot of conservatives,'' says 26-year-old Dinesh D'Souza, now toiling in the White House policy office.

As a result, conservative activists express optimism about the future of their movement, and expect they will have a window of opportunity to help a New Right standard-bearer snare the Republican presidential nomination in 1992. Some of them argue that a George Bush at the top of the Republican ticket or a President Paul Simon might be good for their cause. ``It would wake up the grass roots,'' says Brent Bazell III, former NCPAC director.

Other observers are more skeptical of the movement's future strength. Democratic pollster Peter Hart thinks the demographic trends bode ill for the New Right. ``If you look at individuals under age 30 or 35, they tend to be progressive on social issues,'' he says.

Political analyst Kevin Phillips argues that the conservative movement had an unusual opportunity in 1980. But, he says, ``They blew it.'' A similar opportunity, he says, is unlikely to occur for a long time.

Nevertheless, some conservatives believe the movement's short-term fortunes are almost irrelevant. For the first time, all of the Republican candidates espouse conservative positions. More important, a few conservatives say, the Reagan administration has permanently altered the terms of the national debate on issues of importance to conservatives. As an example, they point to taxes. Reagan may have agreed to raise taxes, they say, but he has already overseen a drop in the top marginal income tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent.

``This is a Reagan change that, to some degree, is cast in concrete,'' says Mr. D'Souza. ``The next election is not as important as these broader shifts and ideas.''

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