For Now, A Third Party's An Empty Threat

Like a cranky older child demanding the attention of his parents doting over their newer infant, the threat of some conservative leaders to seceed from the Republican Party is, at this point, more bombast than susbtance.

Sources close to the evangelical leaders on the call are plain: the talk "was an attempt to signal that Giuliani is unacceptable," one of them says.

The thinking inside social conservative circles this morning is that their leaders' desire to defer to James Dobson -- still the movement's cappo di tutti cappi -- led them to make a tactical blunder. Threatening Giuliani is not the way to preserve influence if he's the nominee.

The breakout group of CNPers first broached -- or floated -- the idea of a third party candidate at a CNP meeting in Miami in 2005, sources say. At that point, though, members decided to wait and see whether George Allen would survive his Senate race. Allen did not. Fast forward to mid 2007. The CNP's executive director, Steve Baldwin, was singing the praises of Fred Thompson to some CNP fundraisers and members. The members did not fall in love Thompson, either. And here we are.

Tony Perkins, James Dobson, and many other leading lights of the social conservative political apparatus, are perceived by their members to have seats at the table in the Bush Administration. Whether they exert real influence is unclear -- probably less than they'd admit, but more than skeptical reporters (myself included) think.

Aside from principles -- no one questions Tony Perkins's committment to the pro-life cause -- the biggest threat Giuliani poses is institutional: his presidency would break the link between the evangelical movement and the Republican Party that Karl Rove first connected in 1998. It would consign the Family Research Council to the status of just another Washington interest group. Perkins would not be able to brag that he knew in advance who the president would nominate to the Supreme Court. And Beltway Republicans -- those who run the campaigns, raise the money, craft the strategy -- would rely less and less on Perkins's advice about how to attract social conservatives.

But think about it: in some ways, though, the link is strengthened with Giuliani at the top of the ticket. In the latest Gallup survey, Giuliani leads among conservatives, weekly chuch goers, protestant Christians and Catholics. To be reductive, if Giuliani wins the Republican nomination, he can thank evangelicals for whom the war against radical (or just regular) Islam is paramount.

It's worth noting: the CNP has seeded insurgent challengers before. In 1990, after George H.W. Bush capitulated and endorsed an income tax hike, frustrated CNPers began to plot the presidential candidacy of one Pat Buchanan....