`IT'S time to gloat. It's time to feel real good. It's a very sweet time,'' says Jack Wheeler, director of the Freedom Research Foundation. Conservatives in the United States, cheered by communism's decline, are celebrating.
But without the Soviet Nemesis, conservatives are like Sherlock Holmes without Professor Moriarty, or Batman without the Joker. They are suddenly without their No. 1 political and emotional target.
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, concedes that ``anticommunism has in many ways been the glue that has held disparate [conservative] segments together.''
Anti-communism galvanized conservatives into action, even when they couldn't all agree on issues such as abortion, capital gains tax cuts, or a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.
When 600 people gathered here over the weekend for the 17th annual Conservative Political Action Conference, many were wondering where the movement should go next.
Mr. Keene reminded them that for the time being, the Soviets must remain their top priority.
Even a ``dying dinosaur'' like Soviet communism can be dangerous, he warned. That dinosaur, though wounded, still has several thousand nuclear-tipped missiles.
Keeping pressure on Soviets
Dr. Wheeler says that although the Soviet system is collapsing, the West should keep up the pressure and, as he put it, ``drive a stake into the heart of the beast.''
Wheeler would give the Soviets economic help, but only after they agree to destroy all their nuclear weapons.
He would tell the Kremlin: ``That's the deal. You get help, and we get military superiority.''
Until that happens, conservatives like Wheeler would give strong support to all the independence movements now bubbling in the Soviet Union, from Lithuania to Azerbaijan.
A number of conservatives insist there is no shortage of causes, however, even if the ``evil empire'' now seems less scary than Darth Vader.
For example, Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, wants to see the United States pressure Cuba to hold elections.
He also wants some sort of action against oil companies, particularly Chevron, which he charges are doing business with Angola, making it difficult to overthrow the repressive government there.
Once the Soviets turn solidly toward democracy, Wheeler says the top priority for conservatives should be the influence of ``leftists in the United States.'' He says with a chuckle: ``There are more Marxists on the staff of Harvard College today than in all of Eastern Europe.''
Jeffrey Wright, national chairman of Young Americans for Freedom, says Social Security could become a major youth issue for conservatives.
``Most of the people who are now putting money into it are never going to receive social security,'' Mr. Wright asserts.
If people want to save money for their retirement, that should be left to individual choice, he says.
Wright also says that conservatives should be alarmed by federal tactics in the war against illegal drugs.
Police and federal agents are confiscating assets such as cash, cars, and houses without due process, and trampling on Fifth Amendment rights that protect property.
Keene agrees. ``Some conservatives feel there are heavy civil liberties costs'' to the drug war, he says.
On the domestic front, Keene says that although former President Reagan seized the rhetorical high ground for conservatism, there is much still to be done.
``We still have a government that is doing too much in too many areas at too high a cost,'' Keene argues.
More functions need to be privatized, he says. Schools need to be made more competitive, perhaps though vouchers and tuition tax credits that could be used for private education.
But if conservatives had to single out one issue that was most important to their future in the US, Keene says: ``I'd attack Congress.''
He explains, ``Congress has become the most hated institution among conservatives, and probably among a lot of other people. They think it ought to be cleaned up. You now have groups that want to limit the terms of congressmen, for example. And you also have a populist uprising against pay raise proposals. Congress is not popular.''
Fresh faces for Congress
Jack Davidson, chairman of the National Taxpayers Union, says some way must be found to get fresh blood into Congress.
``Today a congressman has 16 times more job security than the politburo in North Korea,'' he says.
Mr. Davidson says that the strongest issue working for conservatives today is their opposition to higher taxes.
Davidson suggests that by holding down taxes, the US government will eventually be forced into a sort of American perestroika, or restructuring.
The result will be smaller government, and greater freedom for Americans.
As examples of Washington gone amok, he notes, ``The federal government is spending more today than the whole economy of West Germany. We spend more to defend Japan than Japan does,'' even though Japan now is the second wealthiest nation on Earth.
But their anger over such issues doesn't dampen the enthusiasm of conservatives about recent developments in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and Nicaragua.
The Cold War is ``very nearly'' over, says former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. The communist system, whose triumph was seen as ``inevitable'' by Moscow just 10 years ago, collapsed with surprising suddenness.
Wheeler says: ``There is only one superpower left in the world, and they aren't it.''