Round One: Opening Remarks
The Republican Party isn't "over." It won't cease to exist. Thanks to television and campaign-finance laws, both parties have taken on the character of permanent governmental institutions. Something called the "Republican Party" will be with us for a long time, although what it will stand for is anybody's guess.
James Dobson is working to transform the Republican Party rather than to win elections for Republicans. He explicitly threatens to pull his supporters out of the party unless it becomes more responsive to Christian concerns. Focused on primaries in swing districts, he will bring nothing but division to the GOP unless and until the party is rejiggered to his liking.
The big question is whether Dobson has any carrot to offer the GOP along with this clumsily wielded stick. It doesn't look like it. On the one hand, he reaches more backers -- 28 million weekly, via TV and radio -- than Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson did in their prime. On the other hand, Falwell and Robertson came on the national scene when the born-again-Christian Jimmy Carter was drawing half the vote of self-identifying Christians. Anyone promising to drag these people into the Republican column could get the GOP's ear.
From The Body Politic:
"The insurgence of the religious Right within the Republican Party fills a void; they are placeholders until something better comes along. But as visionless as they are, they still have enough clout to foil any big plans the Democrats might have. So, we have stalemate. We wrestle over red herrings while the really big problems fester."
--Alan Dechert, 6/18/98
What Do You Think?
Join the debate in The Body Politic. We'll highlight selected readers' comments here in the margins as the Roundtable progresses.
But today conservative Christians are monolithically Republican. Does Dobson
think his followers are going to switch their votes to the
secular-humanism-espousing Democrats? Not likely. If the GOP makes the
calculation that Christians have no place else to go, then the party's next
nominee will treat them as Clinton did blacks in the 1992 campaign, when he
lauded black "ideals" but tacitly promised the rest of the country that that
black "agenda" would go nowhere. (Remember Sister Souljah? Notice any big
ground swell of black Republicanism as a result?)
The best-case GOP scenario involving Dobson is that he brings a few hard-right activists into national politics, that they energize Republicans at the grass-roots level in the South, and that no one who's offended by the fire-and-brimstone will notice. That's highly unlikely.
The worst-case scenario is that he pads Republican majorities in the Southern states where they're already secure, damages moderate and liberal Republicans in primaries, and scares the bejesus out of Republicans outside the South.
It looks like this is happening already:
In a California primary election this spring Dobson backed values conservative Tom Bordonaro, who toppled Brooks Firestone, the hand-picked, pro-choice candidate of Gingrich and the Republican leadership. Bordonaro, who then made a campaign promise to vote against Gingrich for speaker, was beaten in the general election.
Also this spring, Dobson backed the gubernatorial candidacy of Nebraska Rep. Jon Christensen, which focused -- graphically and gleefully -- on pornography. Christensen, favored to win, finished third.
That's no longer the case. You can believe or disbelieve the Democratic Leadership Council polls that show 74 percent of Democrats to be firm free-marketers. But look at a Fox poll question from this month, which asks: "How much confidence do you have in the federal government?"
Some Republicans are hoping China could be an issue that yokes (a) pro-life sentiment against the brutality of China's birth policies, (b) institutional outrage against Democratic fundraising excesses in Asia, and (c) populist distrust of big business. But (a) means pushing an aggressive pro-life agenda domestically, and Dobson is right that the Gingrich faction has no stomach for that; (b) means campaign-finance reform, which Republicans have shown again and again they don't want; and (c) is Republican blasphemy.
Introduction and opening questions by Jack Beatty
Round One: Opening Remarks -- posted on June 18, 1998
Christopher Caldwell, a senior writer for The Weekly Standard, also writes a weekly Washington column for the New York Press. His articles have appeared in The American Spectator, Commentary, The Wall Street Journal, George, and many other publications.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.