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GOP platform disputes are bad news for Bush


HOUSTON -- President Bush has used the Republican platform deliberations here this week to demonstrate his control of the party apparatus. But the message of the week has been that the president is suffering serious problems within his own constituencies a week before the national convention at which he will be nominated for a second term.

Conservatives dominating the committee voted down by overwhelming majorities a series of amendments that would have softened the platform's hard-line demand for a constitutional amendment to forbid abortion -- thus, keeping the document rigidly in line with the president's own view.

And a subcommittee quickly backed down on an amendment that would have described as a "mistake" President Bush's approval in 1990 of tax increases included in a budget agreement with the Democratic-controlled Congress.

But the most striking thing about the deliberations has been the impunity with which activist Republicans -- the only kind likely to be involved in a platform committee -- have expressed displeasure with the status quo and advanced alternative formulas for the president's political salvation in the Nov. 3 election.

Mr. Bush has been told by one group of conservatives led by Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota that he blundered in 1990, as he has himself conceded, and now needs to return to full-bore supply-side economics with new tax reductions. And he has been told by another bloc led by Patrick J. Buchanan, his challenger in the primaries, that the answer lies in more traditional conservatism expressed by cutting foreign aid and social spending.

The president has been told further by the moderates who were his original political base that his inflexibility on the abortion issue may cost him the election. The party leaders who proposed that the abortion issue simply be dropped from the platform included Sens. John Seymour of California and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, both running against Democratic women in close races in major states in which Mr. Bush's own future could be decided.

Missing from the platform is anything close to a new approach to the economic problems that are the prime concern of another important constituency for Mr. Bush -- the so-called Reagan Democrats who polls show are prepared to return to their original allegiance because of their concern about their jobs.

The political coloring of the committee -- and, by most estimates, of the great body of delegates who will convene here Monday -- was demonstrated in an 84-16 vote against an amendment to remove the abortion plank from the platform.

The sponsor of the amendment, Vivian S. Petura of New Mexico, argued that everyone already knows where the president stands on the issue so it is "not necessary to emphasize it in a platform" when the action may risk alienating Republicans who support abortion rights.

But Howard Calloway of Colorado, a longtime national party leader, depicted the political equities quite differently. "On this issue, politically you must be consistent," he said. And Marylin Shannon, an Oregon delegate, said any change would be "the greatest travesty of flip-flops."

Another abortion rights advocate, John Carroll of Vermont, countered that since the hard anti-abortion language had been adopted in the 1984 and 1988 platforms "the political world has changed" because of the Supreme Court's decisions in the Webster case in 1989 and the Pennsylvania case earlier this year.

But the conservative position was rock-hard as the committee rejected on voice votes even attempts to insert language that would recognize diversity of views in the party.

Mr. Bush's problem with the economic plank dissolved when the subcommittee, under orders from the White House, changed the language to say the taxes in the 1990 budget deal were a "recessionary" result of a deal forced by the Democratic Congress rather than "a mistake" -- a word Mr. Bush has used to describe the decision. The committee also softened a demand for the 1990 tax increases to be repealed by adding the word "ultimately."

Thus, the president avoided the embarrassment of a platform plank on taxes that could have been read as chastising him directly or one on abortion rights that might have been seen by the religious right as a case of -- to use conservative leader Phyllis Schlafly's phrase -- "caving in" to the abortion rights supporters.

But what was apparent in both cases is that the platform planks put Mr. Bush at odds with constituencies important, perhaps essential, to his election in November. The platform probably won't have any discernible impact on the election. Nonetheless, the document makes it clear that the president has a balancing act to perform over the next three months.

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