Hard Right Burning for Bush?
Lou Sheldon, who heads the Traditional Values Coalition, is also raising money to register and motivate Christian right voters to pull the lever for Bush. His outfit, begun in 1982, claims to be connected to 43,000 churches, and last year he recruited Hispanic and African-American churches in California to support a referendum outlawing gay marriage. Like Robertson and Falwell, Sheldon throws around the big numbers, saying he's shooting for a $12 million voter campaign (nonpartisan, of course)--about five times the size of his past election-year efforts. He claims there's no lack of enthusiasm for Bush among social conservatives: "Bill Clinton issued an executive order declaring June gay pride month and talked about the beauties of homosexuality. That's motivation." But Sheldon acknowledges that 23 percent of the born-again evangelicals who voted in 1994 didn't bother to in 1998. His theory: They were bummed that Clinton stayed in office after the sex scandal. Now he predicts (or hopes) that those voters sense Clinton's "day of reckoning is at hand, and they know Gore represents an agenda that's the antithesis of Christian voters'. The Supreme Court decision striking down school prayer at Texas high school football games will help us. It's a kick in the pants. George W. Bush supports student-led prayer of this sort. He does motivate us."
Sheldon's muscle is hard to assess, since his small shop depends on liaisons at each church to do the grunt work of registering parishioners and urging them to the polls. "It's always a little dicey when people say they have X number of churches," a Republican organizer remarks politely. "That's hard to check or evaluate."
With the political strength of the religious right less discernible than in the past, Republicans and conservative strategists have been wondering how to make up for the assumed decline of the social conservative establishment. Many in GOP quarters are looking to the pros of the National Right to Life Committee to substitute, in a way, for the Christian Coalition. "The Christian Coalition once clearly had it, but it's gone," Weyrich says. "Jerry Falwell talks a good game, but he couldn't put together a political operation if his life depended on it. He can hold rallies. His people know how to do that, but not how to put up a precinct operation. Dobson is capable of mobilizing people if he decides to. But he feels the Republican Party has given him short shrift and has not lived up to the promises of 1994. Lou Sheldon can produce some activity, in a few regions--some states or Congressional districts--but nothing nationally."
If the presidential election proves to be close, whatever mobilization social conservatives mount could have an impact, obviously. But as social cons toil for Bush, other interests--including business groups, labor unions, the NAACP, the NRA, environmentalists, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League--will be doing their damnedest to drive their supporters to vote the right way. It probably will be impossible to determine whether any individual effort was decisive. This election could demonstrate, however, whether the organized religious right still has any juice.
And there's always the possibility that Bush will turn off social con voters. "One mistake the business wing of the Republican Party often makes," Viguerie comments, "is to say of social conservatives, Where else do they have to go? Nothing else drives a conservative up the wall more than a country club Republican saying, Where else do they have to go? Well, we can go gardening, we can go fishing.... I have great concern he'll run a campaign designed to appeal to the national media instead of conservatives. If Bush does not highlight issues of importance to conservatives--the need for tax cuts, school choice, abortion and gun rights--then he's not going to energize the conservative base, and I expect he will lose. This is the best year my business has had since 1980. Conservatives are more worried and concerned than any time in my previous thirty-five years of doing this. Every single marble is in play--the House, the Senate, the White House and Congressional redistricting. They see Hillary in the wings. They see the potential for twenty years of a radical liberal agenda. That's terrifying." So frightened conservatives are there for Bush's taking--unless he screws up.
Should Bush end up in the White House, what then for the movement? "It's a continual worry of partisans of the right, and left, that you elect a guy, but he's not excited about your issues," Norquist remarks. "I think that in the next four to eight years, George W. Bush can do what we want him to do on taxes, and as for social conservatives, those things that can be done on their issues in that period, he's for them." Weyrich, not surprisingly, holds a different opinion: "Conservative movement leaders have hope, but they have nothing to base their belief on. They shouldn't be shocked if Bush gets in and does the opposite of what he said he would do. Of course, all things considered, I'd rather have Bush and the Republicans in than the liberal Democrats.... If there's any major takeback of the country, it's not going to come with this crew"--Bush and the Congressional Republicans. "We need a religious revival. And if we're going to have one, only God knows. Literally."
Fortunately for Bush, most social cons have been battered by the Clinton years and are satisfied with an as-good-as-it-gets candidate. So will Bush owe the Christian right if he moves into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? It depends on what they can do for him in the next few months. His father courted and received religious right support, but, most conservatives complain, he never made good on his debt. It would be reasonable for the National Right to Life Committee to expect payback from Bush for its work in the trenches on his behalf. Yet despite the warnings of Weyrich, Dobson and Viguerie, it's not hard to envision Bush triumphing in November without hugging their issues and without a big push from the God squad. Consequently, the strategists of the religious right have two prayers this presidential season: That George Bush does end up needing them--and that they can meet that need.