Can the `Conservative' Bush Hold Onto GOP Moderates?

SOMETIMES it is worthwhile to look at what was hardly noticed when it occurred: For example, when former President Gerald Ford in defense of the president described George Bush as a "moderate." When asked about this Mr. Bush gently said it was not so. "I am a conservative," he said.

That was an answer that couldn't have played well anywhere. The conservatives don't quite believe it. They have always been suspicious of Bush's ideological bent. For a short while conservatives got behind Bush - during the Iraq war. They began to like this macho president. But the feeling has fallen off, swallowed up by their disdain for Bush's breaking of his no-tax pledge and his failure to deal with the huge federal deficit.

Still, most conservatives in the end will probably cast a less than enthusiastic vote for Bush (those that don't back Ross Perot). It is the GOP moderates that the president should be wooing these days - and isn't. These are Republicans who (or at least many of them) feel almost traitorous as they tell pollsters they guess they may have to vote for Bill Clinton.

While Bush has worked so hard to hold what he sees as the "hard core" of the Republican Party (the conservatives), he has irritated and may lose the support of a group of voters that has always been a very important and often dominant force in the party.

Republican moderates are particularly unhappy today with Bush's alliance with the Christian evangelical movement, led by Pat Robertson. It appears that Mr. Robertson's organization, the Christian Coalition, has seized control of the GOP political apparatus in several states.

Many GOP moderates are breaking with Bush's pro-life position on abortion, seeing it as a political concession to pressure from the Christian Coalition. They remember that Bush once sounded as though he were pro-choice. And they feel that Barbara Bush is hiding a pro-choice position when she refuses to discuss the issue, calling it a "private" matter.

What is a "moderate"? In answering this, one thinks of former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's definition of obscenity: "You know it when you see it."

Years ago the moderates rejected McCarthyism, which fed on the intense fear of an internal communist threat that so consumed the conservatives. The moderates, unlike right-wing Republicans, did not equate social programs, put in place by Franklin Roosevelt, with communism. Led by Nelson Rockefeller, they became advocates of civil rights legislation. Also, they have been less opposed to "big government" than the conservatives.

Obviously, Ronald Reagan never completely pleased the moderates. But he charmed them into voting for him. Also, a moderate eschews what he sees as the Democratic liberals' way of solving problems: creating programs and spending taxpayers' money.

As a newsman I've known George Bush since, as a Texas businessman years ago, he was first talking about entering politics. In numerous interviews with him since the late 1950s I've come to believe that he really isn't an ideologue. He's always said that he's a pragmatist, looking for good answers wherever they may come from.

Looking at Bush's closest political allies, one can conclude that he listens more to moderates than to conservatives - despite his recent assertion of allegiance to the right. Back in 1952 the litmus test of conservatism was to support Robert Taft over Dwight Eisenhower for the Republican nomination. Bush became known as an "Eisenhower man."

Gerald Ford and George Bush were very close as congressmen, and they remain good friends. By the end of the Eisenhower administration, the moderates were looking for someone who would break with conservatives and courageously push for civil rights legislation. Nelson Rockefeller became that man.

Ford liked Mr. Rockefeller and selected him as his vice president - though he dumped him as a running mate in 1976 under pressure from the conservatives. He later admitted that this was a mistake, perhaps one that cost him that election. James Baker was close to Ford and is Bush's best friend. The conservatives have always considered Mr. Baker to be a "dangerous" moderate.

Will Bush with his blurred ideological position - and his avowal of conservatism - be able to persuade Republican moderates finally to "come home" to their party and vote for him? A come-from-behind victory depends on this.

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