CONSERVATIVES are losing patience with George Bush. When the president makes his State of the Union address Jan. 29, many conservatives who once spearheaded the ``Reagan revolution'' will be keeping score.
They wonder: Will Mr. Bush call for lower taxes? Will he encourage alternatives to big government, like ``empowerment'' of the poor? Will he map out a fresh, inspiring foreign policy for the post-communist era?
Conservative anxiety has infected even the White House staff, where junior aides are trying to pump new energy into the president's domestic policy. But they've run into opposition from chief White House pragmatist Richard Darman, the budget director, who dismisses their ideas as ``sloganeering.''
Although conservative complaints about Bush are mounting, some critics speak with more sorrow than anger. At the Heritage Foundation, one of America's premier conservative think tanks, senior vice president Burton Yale Pines says:
``There's no joy in this. It is with profound sadness that we are criticizing George Bush in the terms that we are. ... We have learned some things about George Bush, and we don't like them.''
But Mr. Pines adds: ``We think he still has it [conservative ideals] there someplace. We do not believe he was in the White House with Reagan for eight years [and] didn't learn something.''
Edwin Feulner Jr., president of Heritage, is also outspoken about Bush: ``He's been a disappointment. There are no two ways about it. ... He had the opportunity to carry the Reagan revolution forward, and he didn't.''
Criticism from Heritage officials is significant. They played a key role in the Reagan administration. And unlike some other conservatives, they were generally supportive of Bush until now. But time is running out. On Thursday, when Heritage officials meet with White House chief of staff John Sununu, they will make one more effort before the Jan. 29 speech to turn Bush toward their ideas.
``We believe that George Bush can be rescued,'' says Pines, who calls 1990, with tax hikes and Republican election losses, a ``disastrous year.''
Pines compares Bush's situation with that of former President Harry Truman following a tough, midterm election in 1946. That setback ``prompted in Truman's case a significant change of behavior which led to the 1948 victory. George Bush now has a choice. He can become Harry Truman. Or he can become Herbert Hoover.''
Conservatives spell out three major areas where they say Bush must repair his battered credentials. They say he needs:
1. A growth budget.
Conservatives argue that the 1990 budget deal with Congress was ``catastrophic.'' Says Pines: ``It is obscene to begin 1991 with the largest single one-year tax increase in American history. As the economy is winding down, we are doing exactly what Herbert Hoover did'' at the onset of the Great Depression.
2. Empowerment of people.
``Empowerment is a populist conservative recognition that people know better than government, and government must find ways to transfer power to people,'' Pines says.
Examples of empowerment: tenant management and ownership of public housing; government vouchers that give parents a choice of schools; IRA retirement accounts that can be used for health insurance; enterprise zones to encourage inner-city entrepreneurs; large individual deductions (perhaps $6,000 per person) to lift tax burdens on families and encourage self-reliance.
3. A post-communist foreign policy.
So far, conservatives charge that Bush has no foreign policy. He has only an ad hoc approach to foreign crises. Pines explains: ``There have been no foreign policy guidelines set down by George Bush. While we at Heritage support what he is doing in the Persian Gulf, I would personally be hard-pressed to tell you how the Persian Gulf action fits into a broader view of America's role in the world.''
Conservative analysts argue that the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the invasion of Grenada, and dozens of other actions since World War II all fit into the anti-communist mission of US policy launched by Truman. But the current Gulf crisis does not.
They ask: Are US troops there to protect oil? To restore the government to Kuwait? To defend Saudi Arabia? If so, why? How do these motives mesh with vital US interests? Why should American blood be spilled for any of these causes? How does this action fit into America's long-range objectives for itself and the world?
Conservatives say these questions remain unanswered.
Nor do they find much comfort from Bush's choice this week of Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter, who has little political experience, as the new chairman of the Republican National Committee. They doubt he will be the strong voice for conservatism they were seeking in that job.
Back at the White House, conservative unhappiness will put pressure on Mr. Sununu to see that these issues are addressed in the State of the Union, as well as the forthcoming 1992 budget.
Sununu knows he can get moral support from other leading conservative Republicans, like Jack Kemp, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Republican whip Newt Gingrich in the House of Representatives, and Vice President Dan Quayle. But Sununu must contend with strong resistance from Mr. Darman, who gets biting reviews from his conservative foes. Pines sneers: ``Darman is a Wall Street opportunist who has brought the concept of junk bonds to the American budget process.''
Yet Darman, not Sununu, may be the key player in shaping Bush's Jan. 29 speech, as well as the budget. Those two events, says Pines, will be for conservatives Bush's Rubicon - a course of action that will put them on the president's side, or throw them into the opposition.