Perhaps it was because he was recovering from painful back surgery, but a few weeks before the Republican convention, Paul Weyrich, a founder of the religious right, was awful grumpy about George W. Bush. From his sickbed he complained that “the George W. Bush campaign apparatus is doing its best to suppress conservative activism.” How so? Bush, Weyrich charged, had not spoken with sufficient fervor against abortion, had prevented right-wing partisans from highlighting the abortion issue during GOP platform deliberations (even as Bush supported the antiabortion plank), and he’d refused to establish an antiabortion litmus test for his running mate and judicial appointees. Instead, Bush was rushing for the middle. And if this continues, Weyrich said, Bush will fail to fire up the social conservative activists he needs to carry him on to victory: “Republicans do best when there are clear-cut differences between the candidates.” As Weyrich bitterly noted, although Bush desperately reached out to conservatives during the primaries, when John McCain was at his heels, “That was it for us. After he won the nomination, it was, Hello? I’m sorry. You’ve reached a disconnected number.”
That’s a harsh verdict for Weyrich to render on a candidate who has termed himself conservative and “pro-life,” pitched school vouchers, hailed Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas as model Justices, cited Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher, hired Christian Coalition Wunderkind Ralph Reed, visited Bob Jones U., defended the Christian right when McCain attacked it and called for sandpapering America’s coarse culture. And Weyrich was not alone. Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum, was eyeing Bush warily in the preconvention period. She, too, was disappointed that Bush has not championed the antiabortion cause. And James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family and an influential social conservative, interrupted a three-month retreat to appear on ABC’s This Week to warn that “George Bush cannot and will not be the next President of the United States if he doesn’t energize his base, and the base is pro-life, pro-family, pro-moral, basically evangelical Christians.”
Bush has maintained a nuanced relationship with the religious right. Christian conservative voters helped him dispatch McCain in crucial primaries, but he refuses to act as if he’s in their pocket. He’s in sync with key chunks of their agenda, but he hasn’t wholeheartedly embraced their movement–at least not in a consistent and public manner. Talking about their paramount issue–abortion–appears to be an unpleasant chore for him. Yet the gripes of Weyrich, Schlafly and Dobson do not represent the sentiments of the entire movement. Many, if not most, leading social conservatives have taken a practical view and reached an accommodation with Bush, some more enthusiastically than others. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are as giddy about Bush as a Texas cheerleader. Richard Viguerie, the conservative direct-mail magnate, is resigned to Bush’s ascendancy and supportive. Eight months ago, Viguerie dismissed Bush as an “Elvis impersonator,” opining that “Bush has never taken the lead on an issue of importance to conservatives.” Now Viguerie is all for Bush. “He’s within an acceptable range,” sighs Viguerie. The word “acceptable” emerges often when conservatives discuss the GOP nominee.
Bush can expect to benefit from the support of Christian conservatives who don’t share Weyrich’s profound despair, Schlafly’s reluctance or Dobson’s holier-than-thou aloofness. “Through Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy and Christian radio, social conservatives have been told for eight years that Bill Clinton and Al Gore are problematic, flawed individuals who do not wish the Christian community well,” notes Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. “They are now so convinced that Clinton and Gore have to be gotten rid of that Bush is”–yes–“acceptable.” Bush can count on most of the social cons who vote–if he doesn’t distance himself further from the social concerns of the religious right during the election campaign. Patrick Buchanan’s embarrassingly low standing in the polls may be evidence that the Christian right voters consider Bush to be just fine. And Bush’s selection of Dick Cheney, an established anti-choice conservative, as his Veep-chaperone won’t alienate the right. But what’s in question is the organized strength of religious right leaders crusading for Bush. How powerful is the God-for-GOP machine these days? Does it possess the skills and resources to mobilize and lead its Bush-leaning followers to the polls? The once-mighty Christian Coalition, for one, has fallen on tough times, and the prominent players of the religious right might be better able to preach politics than prompt political action. Bush may be the best hope for the religious right, but the religious right of 2000 may not be his most effective ally.