The Republicans - Dark and Light

TWO faces of the Republican Party were on display Monday night at the kickoff of the party's convention in Houston. In the persons of Pat Buchanan and Ronald Reagan, they were windows into the soul of the GOP. And they revealed why there's expected to be a fierce battle for that soul in the years just ahead.

Mr. Buchanan came on - as he does - like a ripsaw. With his trademark combativeness and vitriol, Buchanan lashed out at the Democrats, especially on such issues as abortion, gay and lesbian rights, and the environment. He hurled verbal grenades at Democratic nominee Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary.

Buchanan's raw "speech tartare," as one observer called it, stood in stark contrast to Mr. Reagan's address. Oh, the former president's partisan juices were flowing, all right: In his good-natured way he skewered the Democrats, and he hammered away on his familiar themes of low taxes, economic growth, and the need for Americans to "stand tall" in a still dangerous world.

But there were no personal barbs, no swipes at Clinton's character, no sneers over people's lifestyles. Unlike Buchanan, Reagan noted the need to share America's bounty with the less fortunate.

The two speakers aptly embody two strains of contemporary Republicanism. For Reagan Republicans, politics is mainly about economics, defense, the size and role of government. One may disagree with their views, but their concerns are largely confined to matters of legitimate national concern; and in their emphasis on individual freedom and opportunity, there's generosity of spirit.

For Buchanan Republicans, who include many on the religious right, politics in large degree is a matter of social issues that should better remain outside the scope of government involvement. And, as with Buchanan himself, their views often tend toward exclusiveness, intolerance, and nativism.

In his speech Reagan said he had always tried to appeal to the best in the American character, to the nation's light, not its darkness. Whether or not George Bush can be regarded as a Reagan conservative in all matters of policy, it's to be hoped that in this regard, he truly will be Ronald Reagan's heir.

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