PAT BUCHANAN'S running fight with President Bush over who speaks for cultural conservatives could hurt the GOP in the same way that catering to special-interest groups destroyed the Democratic Party's credibility with mainstream voters in the '80s. Voters may agree with ideologues on single issues, but the harsh debate, extreme positioning, and style of the truly committed often put off voters.
Mr. Buchanan has targeted cultural conservatives in the South, starting with Georgia, the same way he exploited the antitax sentiment in New Hampshire with his ads reminding voters there that George Bush reneged on the "Read My Lips, No New Taxes" pledge he made in 1988.
Buchanan played to the religious right's aversion to homosexuality with his TV ads in Georgia, accusing Bush of sanctioning homoerotic art produced with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.
By so doing, Buchanan pulled Bush, who is jumpy about his foe's prospects down South, into a fight for the votes of his party's far right. By contrast, those voters had little impact on Super Tuesday in 1988, when their hero, the Rev. Pat Robertson, made so poor a showing that he dropped out of the race.
Buchanan's strategy is the same one special-interest groups in the Democratic Party used to pull party nominees to the left with disastrous results in the '80s.
Inciting the cultural war didn't give Buchanan the bump at the polls he needed in Georgia, but it let him claim the scalp of John Frohnmayer, the embattled chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Mr. Frohnmayer came under fire from Buchanan and others for "subsidizing" art with homoerotic themes. Bush has consistently, though not loudly, said he opposes censorship, but Buchanan's strategy made him nervous enough to dump Frohnmayer.
The issue isn't new in the South. North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms (R) made NEA funding policies an issue in his 1990 race, causing lots of upper middle-class Republicans in his state's huge arts community to turn on him.
Bush's problem with cultural conservatives was inevitable. That wing of the GOP was thrilled in 1980 when Ronald Reagan asked for a moment of silent prayer at the party's convention, a sign he was comfortable showing his belief in God publicly. Once in office, however, Mr. Reagan gave their ambitious agenda little more than lip service, and Bush has followed his lead.
Conservatives did get help on abortion. Reagan and Bush kept their bargain by packing the federal courts with conservative judges who have chipped away at the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling and have barred federal funding for abortion. The day after the Georgia vote, Bush assured the National Association of Evangelicals that he would veto the "freedom of choice" bill proposed in Congress to codify Roe v. Wade.
Next to abortion, the political issue that excites cultural conservatives the most is homosexuality. Back in 1979 and 1980, conservative operatives tried to interest popular evangelists across the South in politics. The preachers were loath to mix "the Lord's work" with politics until the campaign people stumbled on the homosexuality issue.
"That excited them and they started registering their people," said a Republican consultant who was a top operative for presidential candidate John Connally.
Other items on the right-wing agenda not resolved to conservatives' satisfaction in the Reagan-Bush era are tuition vouchers for Christian schools set up in the South to frustrate court-ordered school integration, affirmative action, and quotas.
Buchanan's timing shows that he, unlike Bush, gave real thought to strategy early in the campaign. As a result, he has Bush playing on his turf.
Bush's basic problem, though, is the tax issue. "No new taxes" symbolized pro-growth politics, the glue that holds majorities together in this country. He lost the issue while negotiating with Congress over the budget deal in 1990, and he needs to get it back. How? That's the real question facing Bush, not how to tilt at cultural windmills with Buchanan.
Exit polls show that voters want to send Bush this message: "Stay home and tend to business." It's a message from voters who want straight answers. They are not all homophobic, they're apt to be sympathetic to the arts, and they aren't threatened by affirmative action. They're pragmatists, not ideologues.
Buchanan's harsh attacks could hurt Bush with one group - white working-class guys who hang out in the "juke joints" that dot the rural South. They cheered Desert Storm, but despise affirmative action and quotas and aren't keen on gay lifestyles. Bush's getting "right" on the tax issue would win them back. Otherwise, they may stay home or even be won over by the Democratic candidate in the fall.
That could be the legacy of Buchanan's campaign. It fits a pattern in both parties - the ideologue roughs up the mainstream candidate, forcing him to make commitments that offend mainstream voters, and the party loses the White House in the fall.