George Bush is not Ronald Reagan, and for this grievous lapse the conservative core in the Republican Party will never forgive him. Hardly had the election returns popped on the TV screens when the long knives were out, skewering the president for running a terrible campaign, slashing him for his alleged lack of compass and conviction, cutting deep in terms of personal contempt and rage.
Of course, those gung-ho for the Gipper never liked George Bush. No matter his conversion to the anti-abortion crusade, no matter his espousal of supply-side theories he once branded as "voodoo economics," no matter his heroics in the Persian Gulf, he was always suspect. Within his Eastern patrician background, true believers thought they saw a softness and an unbridgeable separation from what they considered the real America.
The ordeal facing the Grand Old Party is not going to be very pretty. In the victorious glow of the Reagan personality, deep ideological and cultural fissures were obscured. But in the vanquished doldrums of the Bush defeat, the various factions within the party are already at war. They are ready to do battle not only for the 1996 nomination but even more for philosophical control.
This is the usual fate of a beaten party, as the 1980s Democrats can attest. One licking after another finally taught the Democrats to silence their squabbling leftists and move to the center with Bill Clinton this year. It was a classic readjustment that became a classic victory formula as the Republicans lurched rightward. The GOP convention in Houston was essentially taken over by religious and cultural conservatives who managed to affront and alienate vast segments of the electorate.
But unlike the Democrats of a decade ago, the Republicans of today have an added problem. Its name is Ross Perot. The independent billionaire from Dallas won 19 percent of the vote, more than any third candidate since an ex-president named Teddy Roosevelt got 27 percent with his Bull Moose escapade in 1912. Mr. Perot has yet to form a third party. But his movement is intact and well-financed, and his demand for tough measures to fight the deficit resonate well among traditional budget-balancers in the GOP. Indeed, Senate Republican leader Bob Dole, who fits this description, is already pretending to speak for the 57-percent majority (Bush and Perot supporters) who did not vote for Governor Clinton.
There is further trouble for the GOP in the zealotry of Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan, both of whom appeal to the religious right, and, in Mr. Buchanan's case, to the nationalist, isolationist, protectionist streak always just under the surface in American politics. Republicans will be better off if they look to leadership from the likes of Jack Kemp, Phil Gramm, William Weld, Carroll Campbell, Pete Wilson, Bill Bennett and others whose conservatism is essentially economic rather than cultural. The influence of George Bush & Company will be minimal. After all, he is not Ronald Reagan.