The big bad wolves of the conservative movement are huffing and puffing, but they are not going to blow the house down. Not while Ronald Reagan is in it.
Their unhappiness is symbolized by the protest votes they cast in the House last week against the Reagan-endorsed "jobs bill," and the protest votes they will cast this week against the Reagan-endorsed Social Security package.
And the grassroots conservatives, in town for their annual conference a couple of weeks ago, made it clear they don't like the Reagan deficits; they don't like the tax hikes passed last year and threatened for this and future years; they don't like the fact that the Department of Education is still there, and some would say the same for the Department of State. They fret that Taiwan has not been made China, nor has abortion been banned, nor school prayer restored.
And they certainly don't like the makeup of the White House staff which, in the words of one complainant, treats the original, true-believer Reaganites simply as "a faction to be appeased, like American Indians and handicapped Filipinos."
Reagan himself certainly understands the feelings of these folks. A part of him has never left the conservative movement or its ideology to take up comfortable residence in Washington. When he talked to them at their conference, he reverted to the rhetoric of the movement, assuring them that "misdirected, overgrown government (is) the source of many of our social problems--not the solution."
Those words ring hollow to some conservative spokesmen. In a rousing debate with staunchly pro-Reagan National Review publisher William Rusher, columnist and commentator M. Stanton Evans lamented that "a great opportunity was presented in 1980 and it has been defaulted. There was no Reagan Revolution in Washington and there will be no Reagan Revolution."
In a similar vein, Conservative Caucus chairman Howard Phillips said that he would be happier with Reagan's vow that he has not given up on eliminating the Department of Education.
But even those who are skeptical understand that so long as Reagan professes his true conservative faith, it is very hard to challenge his sincerity. He recently told Human Events, their favorite weekly: "I was out on the trail long before I thought I would be actively engaged in public life. And at my age, there's going to be no change on my part. . . . I would just ask some of these conservatives to ask themselves, what am I doing here putting up with all this at my stage in life, if I weren't here to further the things I've been talking about?"
That is the authentic voice of Ronald Reagan, and an effective rebuke to those who think they see signs of mealy-mouthed moderation from him. So the conservatives cannot really mount an effective challenge. The frustration that some of them feel will have to be stored until it is time to fight for the succession. And then watch out, George Bush.
Of course, these folks don't like Sen. Howard Baker or Sen. Bob Dole either. But Bush is further up in the line of succession them, so he represents more of a threat. That is why he ranked far behind Rep. Jack Kemp in a poll of the conservative convention delegates, and trailed Sen. William Armstrong, another favorite.
When Reagan steps aside, Bush is going to feel the full force of the conservatives' blast. And it won't be just huffing and puffing then.