The Republican Right Is Wrong : It’ll Pay at the Polls for Belittling Reagan’s Achievement

<i> Ernest Conine is a Times editorial writer</i>

Listening to the nasty things that the Republican right is saying about Ronald Reagan these days, you would never dream that the President is the most conservative Chief Executive in more than half a century.

Howard Phillips, director of the American Conservative Union, referred to Reagan last week as a “useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.”

Conservative fund-raiser Richard Viguerie, who has joined with Phillips to announce the formation of the “Anti-Appeasement Alliance,” called the President an “apologist” for Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

That’s pretty strong stuff.


What set the right wing off was Gorbachev’s summit visit, the completion of plans for the two leaders to sign a treaty to eliminate missiles with ranges of 300 to 3,000 miles, and Reagan’s exasperated rebuke of the treaty’s ultra-conservative critics in a television interview last week.

Surely, you say, nobody need take seriously these wanderings into fantasyland.

Here we have a conservative Republican President whose own distrust of the Soviets is deep and indelible, and who has made clear his own conviction that Washington must deal with Moscow from a position of strength.

The treaty to be signed today is basically what Reagan proposed way back in 1981, and it is the Soviets who eventually made the big concessions that were necessary for agreement.


During six years of off-and-on negotiations, Reagan hung tough--very tough. And, to the surprise of most liberals in the so-called arms-control community, the Soviets eventually caved in.

The Soviets, who were negotiating from an intimidating position of numerical superiority, agreed to scrap their medium-range missiles if we would also scrap ours. They are obliged to give up four nuclear warheads to each one eliminated by the American side. And, for the first time, the Soviets have agreed to seemingly stringent rules for intrusive on-site inspections.

U.S. inspectors will be given access to a Soviet plant that produces SS-20 missiles, which are banned by the treaty, as well as similar longer-range SS-25 missiles, which are not covered by the treaty. The Soviets in turn can station inspectors at plants involved in the production of U.S. cruise missiles.

The agreement calls for detailed exchanges of data, and both sides will have the right to conduct short-notice inspections at missile bases, storage and testing facilities.


The Administration concedes that the treaty is not foolproof against cheating--no agreement is. But officials insist that the sort of violations that might go undetected would not pose a major military threat, considering the large number of bombers and strategic missiles that will remain on each side.

There is rising optimism, meanwhile, that the summit meeting will also lead to accelerated negotiations on a much more important treaty--an agreement cutting in half the number of warheads aboard strategic missiles and bombers on each side--and that this can be done without requiring the burial of Reagan’s hopes for deployment in the 1990s of a strategic defense, or “Star Wars” system.

The payoff from Reagan’s negotiating strategy is a living advertisement for the conservatives’ loudly trumpeted peace-through-strength approach to national security. (It is also a tribute, most experts believe, to the economic strains besetting the Soviet system.)

You would expect Republican politicians, facing the 1988 elections, to point with pride to their President’s arms-control accomplishments and to defend him against attacks from party extremists. Instead, mainstream Republican leaders have gone to great pains to distance themselves from the missile treaty that is being signed at the summit meeting.


Before voting on ratification of the medium-range-missile treaty, members of the Senate have a responsibility to look at the fine print of the verification provisions, and to press for follow-up negotiations aimed at persuading the Soviets to accept the same sort of lopsided reductions in their conventional forces in Europe that they have embraced in the missile treaty.

But civilized, responsible debate is one thing, and vilification of the Phillips-Viguerie brand--basically unchallenged by Republican leaders--is another.

It is a strange fact that, of the six Republican presidential candidates, only Vice President George Bush flatly favors the missile treaty. For doing so, he has had to endure potshots from the other five candidates, including Senate Republican leader Bob Dole, whose own postures range from studied reserve to hostility.

Aside from the merits of the treaty, which are impressive, hostility to the agreement is unlikely to pay off in the voting booth. Opinion polls show heavy support for the agreement among Republicans and self-described conservatives as well as among Democrats.


But folks like Viguerie and Phillips are less interested in winning elections than in collecting money from frightened right wingers; they feel more comfortable, actually, when they have a nice, liberal President to attack. The candidates, knowing that the professional conservatives can collect big bucks to be used for them or against them, do not have the stomach to incur their ire.

As a result, the Republican posture toward the treaty is in danger of being dictated by the hard-liners who, as Reagan suggested, simply do not believe that any treaty with the Soviet Union can be in the best interests of America.

The betting is still that the treaty will in the end be ratified by the Senate. But the required two-thirds majority is not yet in sight, and conservatives are scheming either to prevent ratification or to load the treaty down with “killer amendments” deliberately designed to make the agreement unacceptable to Moscow.

If they succeed, it will be a blow to the President and to the long-term election prospects of the Republican Party. More important, the United States will be branded by friend and foe alike as incapable of exercising the responsibilities of a great power.