Resurgent conservatives plan to win the war for minds
In a private dining room of the Capitol Hill Club, a Republican oasis in a Democratic preserve, a group of 30 militant conservatives of both parties met in September to celebrate a crucial victory for which they claimed substantial credit. Paul Weyrich, director of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, awarded gleaming brass plaques to Republican Senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada and Richard Viguerie, the movement's genius of the direct-mail campaign. Their combined efforts, exulted Weyrich, had defeated Jimmy Carter's bills for election-day registration and the public financing of senatorial elections, which would have bolstered the Democratic vote. The plaques were inscribed with the tribute: FOR LEADERSHIP IN PRESERVING FREE ELECTIONS.
Those bronze plaques will doubtless be followed by many more accolades, for the conservatives are seeing a new day dawning. All surveys show that a growing majority of the American people consider themselves to be conservative. There clearly is continuing discontent with Big Government and big spending. Beyond these basic concerns, a burst of new emotional issues are swelling conservative ranks and stirring their rhetoric. The Panama Canal treaty may be the most prominent concern of the moment, but the movement is thriving on such life-style issues as abortion, pornography and gay rights. In general, the resurgent right inveighs against a slackness of standards and urges a return to a sterner moralitya personal message that seems to be welcomed by more and more of the electorate.
To be sure, a conservative takeover is hardly imminent. The normally liberal Democratic Party commands the White House, controls the Congress and most of the statehouses and legislatures. But from the President on down, Democrats are behaving much more cautiously than in the past, their liberalism laced with heavy doses of conservatism. Such a stalwart right-wing leader as National Review Publisher William Rusher believes that Jimmy Carter is so conservative that he might even be worth supporting over a more liberal Republican. With the tide running in their favor, the challenge for the conservatives is to translate success with current, perhaps transient issues into an enduring political movement that will prevail at the polls.
They claim to be the New Right, but several of the themesand facesare old. In 1972 Richard Nixon buried his New Left opponent with the help of some of the same issues that are current today. Many of the leaders are familiar: Ronald Reagan, 67, Barry Goldwater, 68, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, 55. As Viguerie puts it, they are "spokesmen, not leaders. They can bring audiences to their feet, but then they leave the hall, and everything stops." Viguerie believes that conservatives skipped an entire generation of leadership: "In the '30s, '40s and '50s, we did not graduate young leaders like the Kennedys and the Udalls on the left. But there is a different breed of conservative coming on the scene now." These include Laxalt, 55, and Viguerie, 44, and a group of aggressive Republicans: Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, 43, Illinois Congressman Phil Crane, 46, and California State Senator Bill Richardson, 49.