WASHINGTON -- The leaders of the far right are trying to convince themselves that the election of Democrat Bill Clinton to the presidency may have been the best thing that ever happened to them because it has brought them together.
With the ouster of George Bush, whom they never trusted anyway, the theory goes, the conservatives now can offer American voters what might be called -- as it was in Barry Goldwater's day a generation ago -- "a choice, not an echo."
It is a thesis that could retire the cup for whistling past the graveyard. It is based on a misreading both of the meaning of Clinton's victory and the nature and makeup of the conservative movement in American politics today.
This trumped-up optimism over Clinton in the White House makes an assumption that he is going to turn out to be another liberal of the Lyndon B. Johnson school. In fact, from what we have learned about Clinton so far, it is far more reasonable to expect him to try to broaden his appeal to the center of the spectrum to reach almost to the fringes of the far right. His particular targets will be the supporters of independent Ross Perot, whom no one would accuse of old-fashioned liberalism.
But the most serious flaw in this thinking is that it ignores the reality about how the right wing defines itself these days. Except for the implacable opposition to higher taxes shared by all conservative blocs, the rightists are identified largely by their positions on social issues such as abortion rights and, lately at least, homosexual rights.
By contrast, based on the 1992 election results and on polls taken this year, the electorate clearly is focused instead on the necessity for fundamental restructuring of the economy, a workable and affordable health care system and improved schools. If there is widespread concern about the prayer amendment, it doesn't show up on the lists compiled by the poll-takers.
But the most devout conservatives within the Republican Party these days are in a position similar to that of the most extreme liberals in the Democratic Party a few years ago. They can exercise a veto power within their own party based on these social issues but they cannot use the same issues to broaden the party base and build a popular majority.
That is the why the most astute Republican professionals recognize that the abortion rights issue needs to be taken out of the political debate if the GOP is to have any hope of making another majority. The conservatives of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition and the economic conservatives who have followed Jack Kemp are not enough in themselves to win general elections. But if traditional Republican conservatives are required to accept an absolute prohibition on abortion, too many of them are going to take a walk.
The social issues also fail these days in reaching the culturally conservative independents and "Reagan Democrats" without whom neither Ronald Reagan nor George Bush could have been elected -- and without whom Bill Clinton would not have been elected Nov. 3. With a supporter of the death penalty in the White House, they can now concentrate on whether they and their children are going to have jobs, a college education and health insurance.
The conservative rationalizations of the moment also fail to recognize the potential for division in the contest for the 1996 nomination. The nominal favorite right now is Jack Kemp, who is "right" on the abortion issue but makes some cultural conservatives uneasy with his insistence on broadening the base of the Republican Party by reaching out to black voters.
And he is going to face stiff opposition on his continuing devotion to supply-side economics from, among others, former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and perhaps on other issues from Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee and former secretary of education. And none of those likely candidates may be as satisfying to the Christian Coalition Republicans as that quintessential champion of "family values," former Vice President Dan Quayle.
The conservatives may be talking themselves into the notion that it's a great advantage to them to be able to demonize Bill Clinton. But they will be kidding themselves if they think they don't have serious problems of their own.