President Reagan's progress toward an arms reduction agreement with the Soviets, coupled with his diplomatic initiative in Central America, has provoked a torrent of criticism from many of his most conservative supporters, prompting Reagan to telephone some key right-wing leaders and take other steps in an effort to assuage their concerns.
Prominent spokesmen for the conservative movement are accusing the President of betraying his own previously announced policies and commitments, especially his pledge to support the anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua. And some suggest that, in seeking deals on both arms control and the Central America peace issue, Reagan is motivated not by conservative principles but by the desire to revitalize his presidency after the Iran- contra affair.
'Deserting' His Position
"Many who wouldn't publicly criticize Reagan now are doing it," conservative activist Richard A. Viguerie said. "They're concerned about abortion, pornography, busing and economic issues, but at the core of the criticism is anti-communism. Across the board he seems to be deserting his anti-communist position he has had for the last 30 years."
From the earliest days of Reagan's presidency, some right-wing activists have never been entirely satisfied with the Administration's ideological zeal, particularly on foreign policy and so-called "social issues." In the past, Reagan's vast popularity inhibited open complaints, but now--as he approaches the last year of his final term weakened by the Iran-contra affair--these critics are becoming outspoken.
In part, this reflects intensified jockeying for position in the post-Reagan era, as well as an effort by some right-wing spokesmen and fund-raisers to find issues that will stir their followers. It is not yet clear whether the new criticism reflects deep unhappiness with Reagan among the rank-and-file conservatives who form his bedrock political base.
Reagan has become so concerned by the attacks from conservative leaders that he telephoned two prominent conservatives during his California vacation to discuss the situation and, said one of them, pledged to pay more attention to their views on policy matters.
Moreover, in another measure designed to placate dissatisfied conservatives, the President has begun resorting to presidential directives to implement social programs that he cannot persuade Congress to pass. Recently, for example, the Health and Human Services Department announced tough new regulations designed to drastically restrict the ability of 4,500 federally funded family-planning clinics to give their patients information about abortion.
And only Thursday, Reagan signed an executive order requiring government agencies to assess all federal programs, including welfare, housing and education, for their impact on families. The White House is also considering executive orders that would ban the sale of pornographic material on military bases and require all federal agencies and departments to assess whether proposed programs could be handled more appropriately by state and local governments.
If the conservative dissatisfaction does not run too deep or spread, Reagan may succeed in placating the critics, GOP sources said. Otherwise, the substantial problems already facing the remainder of his presidency could become more difficult to manage.
Dealing With Democrats
A rift in his own party would especially complicate his problem of dealing with a Democratic-controlled Congress. And, as one conservative activist put it: "Every President needs a base of political support, and the first rule of politics is to protect your base. If you don't, those who would oppose your policies will say: 'Look, even the rock-ribbed supporters are not on board; now is the time to take the initiative.' "
A major concern of Reagan strategists is that unless his right-wing critics can be pacified, they will oppose--and perhaps help defeat--Senate ratification of any arms reduction agreement the President may reach with the Soviets.
With conservative leaders railing against "the arms control frenzy" and "getting a treaty at any cost," Reagan--although avoiding his harsh "evil empire" talk of the past--recently has attacked Moscow over Afghanistan and Nicaragua and has called on Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.
But many longtime conservative activists are not buying Reagan's rhetoric. "The emperor has no clothes on; just about every conservative I know is now acknowledging it," said Viguerie, former publisher of the Conservative Digest.
'A Recipe for Disaster'
Writing in the National Review, John P. Roche suggested that Reagan needs an arms control deal to revive his presidency in the wake of the Iran-contra affair and said the U.S.-Soviet arms reduction package under consideration is "a recipe for long-term disaster."
Reflecting the seriousness with which he himself takes the problem, Reagan telephoned Paul M. Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation in Washington, to offer assurances that he is unwavering in his support of the contras, that he will not sign an arms control agreement unfavorable to the United States and that he will meet more often with the conservatives.
Last week, Reagan also called William A. Rusher, publisher of the National Review, a New York-based conservative magazine, to thank him for writing a syndicated newspaper column defending the President against the attacks of other conservatives. In an interview, Rusher said Reagan "wondered why anybody would be ready to believe he would abandon the contras."
"And that is truly a ridiculous idea," Rusher added.
Litany of Complaints
While the Administration's Central America peace initiative is what one right-wing critic called "the straw that broke the camel's back," conservative activists are coming forward with a litany of complaints, including what they see as Reagan's failure to appoint more conservatives to key positions, lack of zeal in pushing social issues and his handling of federal policy on AIDS.
To the President's dismay, some of the most scathing criticism has been published in two of his favorite publications--the National Review itself and the national conservative weekly Human Events. Rusher, even though he is publisher of the National Review, said most of the criticism is unwarranted and comes from "conservatives who are not political realists."
Reagan telephoned Weyrich and talked to him for 35 minutes two weeks ago after the conservative activist had voiced a series of complaints about the Reagan Administration in a telephone conversation with Kenneth L. Duberstein, Reagan's deputy chief of staff.
Disturbed by Criticism
Weyrich said Reagan obviously was disturbed by all the criticism and quoted the President as saying he needed to have his conservative supporters "on board" for the remainder of his presidency and "we need to visit each other some more and discuss this stuff so we don't read about each other in the newspaper."
Despite Reagan's assurances, Weyrich was not entirely mollified. "I told the President we didn't have an opportunity to come in and argue our views, and he said he understood our concerns. We agreed to meet again, but we shall see what happens," he said.
One source described Weyrich's earlier conversation with Duberstein as "heated," but Weyrich said: "I wasn't screaming at Ken. I was talking frankly and expressing concern about a whole series of initiatives," including the Central American peace plan, the arms talks with the Soviets, the President's nomination of a new commerce secretary and his plans to nominate a new ambassador to Austria and a new director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
Outcry of Protest
Reagan's nomination of former Armco Inc. Chairman C. William Verity as commerce secretary, along with reports that he plans to name retired Time Editor-in-Chief Henry A. Grunwald as U.S. ambassador to Austria and longtime arms negotiator Paul Nitze as director of the arms control agency, have caused an outcry of protest by conservatives who consider all three too weak in their opposition to communism.
Duberstein, Weyrich said, "insisted that, contrary to what we (conservatives) might be thinking, all these initiatives were the President's initiatives and not his or Howard Baker's." Duberstein was not available for comment.
Much of the conservatives' ire has been directed at Baker, the moderate former senator from Tennessee who was appointed White House chief of staff to replace Donald T. Regan on Feb. 27, the day after the Tower Commission severely criticized Regan for his management of the White House during the Iran-contra affair.
And, despite the President's attempts to assuage his conservative critics, the criticism is continuing unabated.
'Bring Back Regan'
Although Reagan's right-wing supporters frequently found fault with Regan when he was at the White House, the lead story in the current issue of Human Events, headlined "Bring Back Don Regan," declares that the Reagan agenda "is coming unraveled and Baker must absorb much of the blame."
The article, which carries no byline but was written by Allan H. Ryskind, the co-publisher, declares that Baker's proclivity for compromising rather than fighting for the right-wing agenda "makes for a spineless presidency, one that invites the liberals to roll Ronald Reagan on a whole range of issues."
Baker has not responded publicly to the attacks on him, but White House sources said he was furious over the Human Events article, especially because he believes he has tried to be accommodating to the conservative activists ever since accepting the White House post.
Discussing the criticism, a Baker aide, who refused to be identified, said: "I wonder how much of that is frustration that they don't have a candidate in the 1988 presidential race. In 1980 and 1984 they were players, but now they've got no candidate."
What Motivates Conservatives
Although conservative activists supported Reagan in both those years, so far they have coalesced around no Republican candidate, although Vice President George Bush, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) have all sought their support.
Shortly after taking office, Baker did arrange a meeting between Reagan and a group of conservative activists, including Weyrich and Rusher, to discuss the agenda for the remainder of Reagan's presidency.
"It was patently an effort by Howard to buy some time from the right," said one of the conservative leaders, who refused to be identified. "We were supposed to meet again every six weeks, but they've never called another meeting. I don't think Howard or the people around him--Ken Duberstein or (communications director) Tom Griscom--have any real understanding of who conservatives are and what they are about or what motivates them."
Although that group never met again, three weeks ago Baker, attempting to pacify critics who accused the Administration of selling out the contras, arranged a meeting of Reagan and some of his top advisers with about 15 conservative backers of the Nicaragua rebels, including Weyrich.
Greeted With Silence
At that session, according to several sources, Reagan was greeted with stony silence when he tried to reassure the conservatives in a brief statement that he still supports the contras despite embracing a peace plan that would end aid to the rebels if the Sandinista government accepts a cease-fire by Sept. 30, refuses any more Soviet military aid and agrees to democratic and humanitarian reforms.
The meeting originally had been requested by the conservatives to discuss strategy for seeking additional aid for the rebels in the aftermath of Lt. Col. Oliver L. North's testimony at congressional hearings on the Iran-contra affair. North's testimony in support of the contras had been so well received by the public that conservatives believed the time was ripe for pressing Congress for more aid.
However, because the Administration had already endorsed the peace plan by the time the meeting was held, conservatives accused Baker and other top officials at the session of selling out the contras.
Thus, when the President arrived, the conservatives were already seething. Reagan, stunned by his icy greeting, used index cards in making a statement of less than five minutes.
"When he stopped there was dead silence, and he stood there awkwardly; as an old radio man, he would have called it dead air," said a conservative who attended the meeting. "He must have stood there for 15 seconds and then said: 'I guess I interrupted some work.' Then he turned and walked away and, as he went out the door, he put his hands out with his palms up as if to say: 'What's going on here?' "