Houston. -- These are unsettling times for the conservative movement that has been the driving force in American politics for more than a generation. Old war horses and true believers, assembled once again at a Republican National Convention, knew in their hearts last week that the Goldwater-Reagan revolution has run its course.
It is a victim of time and its own success. The Bush years have been one slow dying, and even if they continue another four years the face of conservatism will be irreparably changed.
How it will change is a mystery even to the likes of Pat Buchanan, who may be the most visible of apostles but may never be the acknowledged successor to Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
The Houston convention turned into a well-orchestrated four-day political rally that demonstrated the seasoned operatives who have run the conservative movement for so long have not lost their touch. But behind the hoopla, a battle raged between economic conservatives, most disciples of Barry Goldwater, and cultural conservatives who were welcomed into the big tent by Ronald Reagan. Their views cannot be logically reconciled, and both sides know it.
But the imperatives of an uphill re-election campaign for President Bush required an agenda that included spokesmen for everyone from the religious right to the libertarians. In show biz terms, the extravaganza worked. But the debate goes on, and it will be heard long after the November results are in.
To understand the disarray in the conservative movement, one of the seminal forces in the 1992 election, it is well to trace its beginnings, its tribulations, its flowering and its decline.
Consider, first, the 1948 campaign, the Truman comeback that President Bush wants des- perately to imitate. Thomas Dewey was the Republican candidate in that year, a product of the moneyed, internationalist Eastern Establishment that had controlled and dominated the GOP for decades.
Like Wendell Willkie before him, Dewey had beaten back a challenge from isolationist, balance-the-budget Midwesterners, led by Robert A. Taft, whose conservatism was of a classical mold. Resentment of Dewey, frozen forever in memory as the wedding-cake figure who twice led the GOP to defeat, was deep and unappeasable.
Classic Midwesterners, however, were never to have their day. Instead, resentment of the Eastern Establishment gave birth to McCarthyism, whose pathological fear of Communism, without and within, discerned a lack of patriotism even in Generals George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower.
President Ike used Richard Nixon to contain McCarthyism by appealing to broader elements in the party. But when Nixon lost in 1960 to John F. Kennedy, a sea change began in American politics that changed history in ways then only dimly perceived.
Out of the West and the South, the Goldwater movement surged, carried along by a hatred of big government and big business, of all those elements of power that were perceived to interfere with the individual. It was Main Street vs. Wall Street, the small businessman vs. the Blue Chip boardroom, suburbia vs. big city bossism.
Taftism and its isolationist tendencies gave way to a sort of internationalist anti-Communism that blunted the cutting edge of McCarthyism. But more important, Barry Goldwater found himself running against nothing less than a Rockefeller -- New York state's Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. The symbolism was complete.
At the 1964 GOP convention in San Francisco, Goldwaterites stomped Eastern Establishment moderates so badly they never regrouped and have virtually disappeared. Political observers who believed the conservative movement was vanquished when Lyndon Johnson crushed Senator Goldwater the following November were monumentally wrong. Toward the end of that campaign, actor Ronald Reagan made "The Speech" on television for the Goldwater ticket, and conservatism instantly had a new hero.
Fervent right-wingers had to endure the scandal-ridden Nixon interregnum, when pragmatism got a bad name, but all the while they could revel in the seamless transition from the Goldwater days to an era when Ronald Reagan, with seasoning as governor of California, was the uncontested leader. Mr. Reagan almost toppled an incumbent president, Gerald Ford, at the 1976 convention in Kansas City, and then went on to win the 1980 nomination and defeat Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
The conservative triumph was complete. With his sunny optimism, his lofty vision of America and Americans standing tall and his fuzzy gloss on specific issues, President Reagan was able to embrace and conciliate the various elements of the vast coalition he commanded -- probably the broadest coalition since FDR's New Deal. Anti-communism, traditional values, tax cuts, defense buildup, supply-side economics, libertarians, the religious right -- all were part of his base of support.
But alas for the ideologues of the right, the Gipper also had to govern, and in governing he had to confront the inevitable compromises that come with the exercise of power. The lofty Reagan persona tamped down the criticism of purists, even when he signed one of the biggest tax increases in history in 1982, even when soaring deficits made a mockery of his balance-the-budget one-liners.
No such protection was available, however, to his vice president. When George Bush succeeded to the White House four years ago, he was never accepted by the hard right no matter how fervently he fought abortion rights or how much he conformed to the failed theories of supply-side economics. When the 1990s recession hit, itself a product of Reagan excess, Mr. Bush had few resources to combat it and and little enough moral support within his own party.
Pat Buchanan's entry into the 1992 primaries was, ironically, the first clear sign that the Reagan coalition was falling apart. His brand of social conservatism, with its contempt for gays and "radical feminists" had a harder edge that managers of this "family values" convention in Houston could stomach. And Mr. Buchanan knew it, exploited it right through the primaries to the Houston convention.
The two men split on another key issue dividing the conservative movement today. Mr. Buchanan espoused an isolationist and protectionist streak, asking why America should try to protect democracy all around the world. He opposed the Persian Gulf war. Mr. Buchanan also exhibited a dislike of foreigners, aliens and anyone (gays especially) failing his definition of what real Americans should be.
Mr. Bush, in contrast, is an internationalist and a free trader in a tradition extending from Roosevelt through Truman to Nixon and Reagan. He said in his acceptance speech he wants America to be a "military superpower, an economic superpower and an export superpower."
While Mr. Buchanan has ambitions for 1996, there are other claimants to the conservative mantle with different styles and different views:
* Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, a supply-sider who would crack down on government spending and spiraling entitlement costs while slashing taxes;
* Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, who would blend his faith in tax cuts with a readiness to empower the poor and the disadvantaged through government programs marching under his bannner as a "populist conservative";
* former Education Secretary William Bennett, another social conservative but with a more intellectual, less exclusionary mind-set than Mr. Buchanan;
* and, of course, Vice President Dan Quayle, whose hopes for higher office and an esteemed place in the right wing of the GOP depend on a Bush victory in November. Without it, he would probably fade from sight.
All these conservatives reflect only a part of the Reagan coalition; none remotely approaches his wide appeal. The conservative movement finds itself without a leader, in a world without the Communist menace to unite it on foreign policy, facing a troubled domestic situation from which it cannot escape responsibility and saddled with a GOP nominee whose pragmatism and lack of zealotry frustrate the faithful.
"The 1992 campaign could be our last great hurrah, the last roll call of the Reagan coalition," says Mr. Buchanan. "We have to redefine outselves."
Ed Rollins, a conservative operative who briefly flirted with Ross Perot, warns that if the GOP loses this election, the Republicans (meaning the conservative movement) could be out of power for 16 years.
As he showed in his speech Thursday night, Mr. Bush will fight this election campaign in predictable ways: by promising new approaches to restore and restructure the American economy, by attacking the "gridlock Democratic Congress" in Harry Truman style, by stressing "family values" in ways that will bring Bill and Hillary Clinton into question, by arousing concerns in the electorate about what a Democratic administration would do to the country.
"Who do you trust?" promises to be the campaign mantra.
All these tactics -- even family values -- are more the result of campaign imperatives than ideological commitment. They are the weapons of a politician who says he will do whatever it takes to win.
The course of this election in the next 75 days will tell the nation almost nothing of what is to become of the Goldwater-Reagan tradition, a tradition now so wobbly that its founder excoriates the religious right and its great flag-bearer would be sure to oppose a return to isolationism. Whatever the outcome in November, the battle for the Goldwater-Reagan succession (if there is to be one) will be one of the key factors in future American politics.
Joseph R. L. Sterne is editor of the editorial pages of The Baltimore