Conservatives Hope War Will Play GOP's Way in '92

Gulf crisis, they say, highlights the need for strong national defense

REPUBLICAN Jesse Helms says there's a new, popular T-shirt in his home state of North Carolina. It says: ``You're either a Patriot, or you're a Scud.''

Conservatives like Senator Helms, bursting with pride over the Persian Gulf war, feel revitalized in this third year of the Bush presidency.

Leaders of the movement say the war with Iraq gives them and the Republican Party a formidable political advantage as the United States moves toward the 1992 elections.

Clearly, conservatives hope to portray the '92 elections as a battle of ``Patriots vs. Scuds,'' with Republicans playing the role of the Patriots who will vigorously defend American interests.

They say several factors play into their hands:

The Democratic leadership in Congress lined up almost unanimously against the war, which now has broad support from most Americans.

President Bush is prosecuting the war vigorously, unlike previous presidents during the Vietnam War.

Republican-supported defense programs, such as the upgraded Patriot missile, the Stealth fighter, and the overall defense buildup of the 1980s, are giving US and coalition forces an overwhelming military advantage.

Sounding a theme that may be heard across the country next year, Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas says:

``If Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis were elected president, the Berlin Wall would still be standing, and Saddam Hussein would be in Saudi Arabia today.''

Several hundred of America's leading conservative activists gathered in Washington over the past several days to hear speeches like Senator Gramm's, to talk about the war, and to plot political strategy at the 18th Annual Conservative Political Action Conference.

The ``vast majority'' of conservatives are delighted that President Bush appears to have learned what they call the most important lesson of Vietnam, namely, ``If you're going to fight, you fight,'' says David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union.

Although the war-inspired mood here was upbeat, Mr. Keene concedes that many conservatives are ``quite distressed'' with the Bush White House on domestic policies. They are especially nettled over the president's decision to approve tax hikes as part of last year's budget compromise with congressional Democrats.

Conservatives also voice grave doubts about Mr. Bush's strategy toward Congress.

While President Reagan would challenge Congress with conservative policies and rhetoric, Bush seems too eager to work hand-in-glove with Democratic liberals on Capitol Hill, they say.

Except for the Gulf war, many conservatives indicate they would be more critical of the president in some foreign-policy areas as well.

They would ask, for example: Why isn't Bush dealing more forcefully with the Soviet crackdown in the Baltics?

But overall, conservatives say events are finally turning their way after bitter disappointments in 1990.

Republican pollster Arthur Finkelstein of New York says that in last year's elections, conservative Republicans saw their policy base crumble.

In the economic area, the GOP lost the ``no new taxes'' issue because of Bush's volte-face.

In foreign policy, the Soviet nemesis collapsed, so there was no visceral foreign-policy issue to run on.

In social areas, the abortion controversy created difficulties, because many women felt threatened by recent court decisions that make it possible to greatly restrict the practice.

In the next campaign, Mr. Finkelstein says, conservatives must rededicate themselves to core issues, such as fighting drugs and supporting a strong military.

``If we are going to win, we have to go back to those things that got us here,'' Finkelstein says. ``We lost our way in 1990, and I think the war has helped us regain it in 1992.''

Gramm gave conservatives a taste of several issues he thinks might work, including the Gulf war.

On the war: ``Every major Democratic leader in both houses of Congress voted to undercut the president's position of leadership and to position themselves to the left of the United Nations.''

On defense: ``The Democrats fought our effort to rebuild defense, and a cornerstone of their proposed policy today is to dismantle that defense.''

On America's world role: ``When we emerge from this war, we will be the only superpower on Earth. No nation since the Roman Empire will have been so dominant in the world.... That power ... must be put to a great and noble purpose. And we ought to begin in the Middle East by putting together a permanent peace which is based on the requirement that every nation recognize and support the enforcement of the sovereignty of every other nation.''

On the third world: ``We ought to be exporting revolutionary capitalism all over the world.''

On Mexico: ``We need a free-trade agreement with Mexico to make North America the largest free-trade area in the world.''

On Latin America: ``In 1992 ... we ought to begin negotiations on a free-trade agreement in the Americas that runs from the Arctic to the Antarctic.''

Some of these policies, especially on trade, will stir controversy. Free-trade proposals alarm organized labor in the US, where wages are 10 times those of Mexico. Labor leaders predict that good jobs, particularly blue-collar factory positions, will move quickly out of the US if free trade becomes law.

Meanwhile, conservatives here keep returning to the war as the most important issue. Jack Kemp, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, looks at the protesters outside the White House and says:

``They're not for peace. They're for appeasement.... They ought to go to the Iraqi Embassy and demonstrate for peace.''

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