The Austin Chronicle

Forgiving His Trespasses

Fight for the Right

By Lisa Tozzi, May 28, 1999, News

It's a tricky dance GOP candidates do: To win the nomination, they pander to the religious right, but in order to capture the general election, they have to appeal to the moderate mainstream. For now, the Bush team -- which reportedly includes former Christian Coalition president turned political consultant Ralph Reed -- is focusing on the first part. Bush is more frequently talking about his faith, and quoting the Bible in speeches. And he is already well-versed in the right's "Holy Trinity" issues: anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, and religious influence in education. He knows their hymns by heart now: vouchers, abstinence, phonics, parental rights, and personal responsibility. "George W. Bush and the religious right have an interesting relationship. They need each other, but neither is probably terribly happy about that," says Peter Montgomery, spokesman for People for the American Way, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that monitors the right's political activities.

illustration by Doug Potter

illustration by iDoug Potter

'f the religious conservatives want to hitch their wagon to a star that can take the GOP back to the White House, George W. may be its best bet. Or at least that's what the Bush team wants them to believe.

This is an important election for the right. It could either re-solidify religious conservatives' place in politics, or it could be the last in which GOP candidates make a serious effort to kowtow to its strident stance on social issues. In a recent Salon magazine article, author Frederick Clarkson, who has covered the religious conservatives for 15 years, points to the Christian Coalition's woes as an example of the Christian right's weakening power. Led by Reed and Pat Robertson, the Coalition was the religious right's most prominent organization, so much so that even moderate Republicans like the governor's father felt obligated to kiss its leaders' rings. But in recent years, Clarkson writes, "the organization was faced with sagging revenues, declining membership, a pending IRS investigation, and a lawsuit by the Federal Election Commission alleging illegal campaign contributions to Republican politicians."

In addition, impeachment backlash hurt the Republicans in 1998, and a number of right-endorsed candidates who had railed against President Clinton's intern antics were cast out of office. The postmortem buzz was that the right was suffering from a crisis of confidence. Some leaders, like Heritage Foundation's Paul Weyrich, even suggested that the "moral majority" should drop out of politics altogether. Secular Republicans -- with whom Bush tends to be lumped -- have been praying for years that the religious right will cut the Grand Ol' Party some good ol' slack -- lighten up on abortion; be more inclusive. But if the right self-destructs completely, the secs may come to regret their demise, since the entire party has reaped the rewards from the religious right's passion, money, and grassroots mobilization skills.

Of course, it's too early to count the right out of this election. While outspoken leaders like Robertson may be losing their clout, more stealthy (and just as ultraconservative) finaciers like San Antonio multimillionaire James Leininger only seem to be gaining political power. And in an example of things to come, the Christian Coalition has already announced plans for an aggressive fundraising drive to turn out record numbers of religious conservatives for the 2000 election. "We at the Christian Coalition are far from quitting," said Robertson in a recent statement. "We have just begun to fight."

Do Robertson and friends see Bush as the man to lead that fight? It depends on who you ask. While Bush was still basking in the afterglow following the press presentation of his presidential exploratory committee, right-to-lifers like Phyllis Schlafly and Focus on Family's Rev. James Dobson attacked the governor's wishy-washy stance on abortion. (No, except in the case of incest, rape, or the life of the mother; and he doesn't feel the public is "ready" for a constitutional amendment banning abortion, though he does feel there should be "fewer" abortions.) But these attacks have been minimal; many seem to be taking the wait-and-see approach put forth by American Family Association's Don Wildmon, who says he is withholding comment on Bush because he simply "doesn't know enough about the governor to comment about him specifically" as a presidential candidate.

"Not One of Us"

One religious conservative who doesn't need time to make up his mind about George W. Bush is Tom Pauken, who became state GOP chair in 1994 when the right took control of the party, before resigning last year to make an (unsuccessful) bid for attorney general. Pauken says he has "real concerns" about a Bush presidency: "It's critical we have someone with the intellect to handle the job. It's one thing to be a governor in a state where Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock had most of the power, as during most of Gov. Bush's tenure in office; but it's a totally different thing to be president," says Pauken, who obviously doesn't mince words when it comes to Bush. A critic throughout the governor's first term, Pauken mocked him as a "me-too Republican" and said he lacked the will to lead a conservative revolution. The acrimony between the two continues. (Pauken also shares some bad blood with former RNC chair Haley Barbour -- now a member of Bush's exploratory committee. Pauken called for Barbour's retirement and criticized his fundraising practices.)

Pauken calls Bush's commitment to the "conservative agenda" weak, particularly when it comes to social issues: "I don't think they interest him much. He'll say what he needs to woo the conservatives," says Pauken. "His handlers are going to position him in the campaign as a conservative answer. So many Republicans who are so desperate to win the White House will say [Bush] is our only hope, that we need to vote for him. But grassroots conservatives, movement conservatives, know he's not one of us."

The right has its share of candidates who will toe the line on the conservative social issues -- Gary Bauer, Pat Buchanan, Dan Quayle -- and while none of them have Bush's star power, some right-watchers say they may serve as a lightning rod for the religious conservatives for a while and make it easier for Bush to straddle the middle. For now. But once primary season starts in earnest, it's quite likely Bush will be called upon to pledge his allegiance to the religious right.

He may well do so. And if in return, religious conservatives help pave George W. Bush's path to the White House, you can expect the governor to take his Holy Trinity policy to Washington -- something far more troubling than any secrets the private investigator Bush hired may have uncovered.

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