THERE is no longer any real doubt that the Republican Party is in trouble. And there is not much doubt about the reason, either. But the remedy is not so easy to find. The trouble is one that besets any party long in office in any democratic country.
The Republicans have been in office in the United States for 7 years. They came to office because, back in 1980, they were in tune with the top national anxieties of those days and proposed doing those things that would respond to those anxieties.
But national anxieties can change over 7 years. If you take a quick mental look back at 1980 and what was going on then, you will realize how much US national anxieties have changed.
In 1980 the staff of the American Embassy in Iran was still being held hostage. A military rescue effort had failed ignominiously. This added to a general sense of uneasiness about American power and influence in the world.
While the US was being humiliated by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Soviets were settling down in Afghanistan, they appeared to have consolidated a long-term position in Africa (Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Angola), and Soviet influence seemed to be spreading from Cuba to Nicaragua and El Salvador in Central America.
The American voters of 1980 were anxious about Soviet expansionism and apparent US world weakness.
They had also just been through an unpleasant bout of inflation. It had undermined confidence in the ability of the Carter administration to manage the national economy. Voters were ready for a check on welfarism, which was widely conceived to be at the root of economic weakness.
It is beside the point that the Carter administration had sensed the new anxieties of 1980 and had taken two essential steps to meet them. President Carter began building up the armed forces almost immediately after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and had planted Paul Volcker in the Federal Reserve Board to check the inflation.
The remedies were being applied, but too late to dissolve the anxieties.
The Republicans of 1980 had estimated those anxieties correctly and built their campaign on the promise to remove the causes. The Reagan administration was like a military force trained for a special mission. This one was trained to rebuild US military power and influence, and to cut back on the welfare state.
It is difficult to retrain a military force for a different assignment. It is difficult to turn a political party to new tasks. The party in power tends to lose touch with changes in public anxieties.
For the American voter of 1988, fear of the Soviet Union has largely evaporated, partly because Ronald Reagan himself has gone to Moscow. Fear of Soviet armed forces, along with fear of communism, is seen to be a recessive force in history. Anxiety about too much welfarism has also evaporated.
In place of the anxieties of 1980 we now have anxiety about what drug abuse is doing in the streets of our cities and to our children, a yearning for safe and effective day care, and for protection from damage to air and water.
The Republicans have been late in responding to the new anxieties. Mr. Reagan launched an antidrug campaign, yes, but cut back on the ability of the Coast Guard to protect our sea approaches.
As usually happens, the party out of power is more aware of the new anxieties of today than the party that has been in office. The Democrats have taken the lead on the drug issue, on day care, and on anti-pollution. Mr. Reagan may complain about the Democrats' ``politicizing'' the drug issue. But he muffed it. They seized it. The same goes for day care.
So it is in politics. The party in power tends to lose touch with changes in national anxieties. George Bush is the victim of this condition. He has to play catch up. It is not easy.