Hard Right Burning for Bush?
Robertson's dedication to Bush is firm, but his Christian Coalition, beleaguered by a financial crunch, legal problems and staff troubles, has fallen apart since poster boy Ralph Reed departed to become a well-paid political consultant. The coalition has lost its best operatives, and there is no executive director. Roberta Combs, executive vice president and day-to-day chief, has been criticized for squandering time and money on "faith and freedom" rallies rather than on organizing. Last December, Robertson conceded that his political arm was "quite a mess." In February, Paul Nagy, a former field director, said, "The Christian Coalition is a defunct organization."
But Robertson can rise again. "That the organization has gone through a restructuring in the national office has nothing to do with the grassroots in the states," insists Combs. As for Reed's departure, she huffs, "No one person is indispensable." She predicts that "our people will get revved up" by the Bush campaign at "the right time," although she admits it hasn't happened yet--is she whistling past the graveyard? Several state Christian Coalition operations, however, are functioning well. And it presumably still has lists of likely Christian right voters and ministers willing to direct people to the voting booth. The lists may not be up-to-date, given the disarray at headquarters, but they're probably usable. If the coalition isn't up to exploiting them fully, perhaps the Bush campaign, the Republican Party or Tom DeLay's operation will be. "It must be Ralph Reed's job to figure out how to reach these people," says one political strategist. "And their names are known." Combs claims the coalition will operate paid and volunteer get-out-the-vote phone banks in all fifty states, and Robertson has vowed to distribute 70 million voter guides to push social conservatives toward the Bush and GOP camp. (To comply with tax and campaign laws, these compare-and-contrast guides to the candidates are supposed to be strictly nonpartisan, but, as always, they're certain to favor Republicans.) "Robertson's ability to turn out voters had nothing to do with having Ralph Reed on television," says Norquist. "The key has always been ministers who let the coalition hand out materials."
"It would be a mistake to equate the organizational disarray of the Christian Coalition with an organizational incapability to deliver anything," observes Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Robertson doesn't need a tremendous infrastructure to disseminate the voter guides; he just needs local activists who can deliver boxes of materials to coalition-friendly churches, particularly the mega-churches in the South and West. Robertson's 70-million-guide goal is a stretch. A small fraction distributed in the right places could improve Bush's fortunes and those of Republican House and Senate candidates, but it's not certain that the coalition is up even to that task.
Jerry Falwell, organizer of the Moral Majority in the eighties, has returned to the political pulpit, mounting what he claims is a $15 million-$25 million campaign to corral 10 million evangelical voters, another supposedly nonpartisan effort designed to aid Bush. "The idea is to beat Al Gore," says Falwell, who a few years back promoted a video that suggested Bill Clinton had arranged the murders of his enemies. "Falwell's project is so outrageous in its anti-Gore sentiment that it does not pass the laugh test of being nonpartisan," asserts Lynn, who has requested that the IRS investigate.
Last year, when antiabortion activists were questioning Bush's commitment, Falwell eagerly vouched for his "pro-life" views. Now, with the help of Viguerie's direct-mail machine, he's raising money to locate and register Bush voters. This past spring, Falwell noted that he'd already received $1 million in corporate contributions. When he briefed conservative activists in Washington, he said he aimed to convince ministers in 70,000 churches to hand out voter material before the election, including 100 million "Promise to Pray and Promise to Vote" pledge cards. This would be quite a feat for a project only a few months old that, Falwell claims, will shut its doors after the election (perhaps a clever way to duck the IRS).
Cal Thomas, vice president of the Moral Majority in the eighties, doesn't see the Falwell endeavor as serious, except as a collection-plate scheme. "It's all about fundraising," he says, with a snort of disgust. Falwell, he explains, does not have "the know-how or the follow-through. Falwell, the Christian Coalition--they're all paper tigers, to quote Mao. The Christian vote is not unified. Huge numbers of evangelicals voted for Clinton twice. What's out there has been registered. There's no untapped mother lode that can magically be called up. It's the mushy middle that determines the election. This is just about getting people to send in money."