Scenes from the Bewildered Right

This year's Values Voter Summit, a gathering of religious right activists, offered a marked contrast to last year's intensely focused vitriol. Sure, there was plenty of blaming and finger-pointing at the usual "enemies" (gay people, feminists, Muslims, civil rights activists, secular humanists), but permeating the atmosphere of the Washington Hilton last weekend was an unsettling sense of bewilderment and anxiety.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the one candidate who genuinely excited the crowd of more than 2,000 right-wing evangelicals, failed to win outright backing, leaving the specter of a nominally pro-choice Republican nominee looming on the horizon. If frontrunner Rudy Giuliani should actually win the Republican nomination, he would be the first pro-choice candidate since 1976 to do so. Several speakers exuded a sense of pessimism over the Republican Party's chances to win the presidency in 2008, regardless of who wins the nomination.

"[T]here is an ominous feeling in the air among the pro-family movement and community," James Dobson, founder of the Focus on the Family media empire, told a ballroom packed with admirers who had gathered to pay him tribute for his years serving as the president of Focus on the Family, a post from which he recently stepped down. "There are gathering storm clouds on the horizon ..." Dobson warned. "There is at least the possibility that the far, far left is going to capture the triple crown in '08: That means the White House, that means House of Representatives, that means the Senate, it means all of the offices of government, it means the cabinet."

The "far, far left," of course, in Dobson's book, is the Democratic Party, and he warned of what that would mean for his own year-old grandson (whom the audience met in a slide show of baby pictures): "[I]t would mean," he said, "that the Supreme Court will quickly change, and that could set the direction of the dominant branch of government for the next 30 years. And that's scary."

Dobson has long fancied himself as something of a kingmaker, and for many years played the purist to the role of pragmatist assumed by the Rev. Pat Robertson, who once enjoyed great presence in American politics as the founder of the Christian Coalition, which fell into disarray with the departure of its famed executive director, Ralph Reed (late of the Abramoff scandal) and troubles with the Internal Revenue Service.

With Robertson now lacking the clout to provide the yang to Dobson's yin, Dobson found himself trying to play both parts, which led him to deliver a confusing message. Would he and other religious right leaders join together to launch a third party, as has been inferred from remarks he made earlier this month? No, Dobson said; that would be "political suicide." But he might just vote for a "minor party candidate," as he claims to have done in the 1996 presidential election. Not that he's telling anybody else how to vote, mind you.

To his admirers on Saturday night, Dobson confessed to feeling anxious about the nation's political future. That may be so, but the truth is that Dobson, and many leaders of the religious right, are mad as hell. "And ever since George Bush has been in--" he sputtered, interrupting himself. "We had the triple crown: We had the White House, the House and the Senate, and the Republicans sat there for six years and did almost nothing."

By "nothing," Dobson presumably means that Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land. And there's no federal Marriage Protection Amendment ready for ratification by the state.

As for the candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gave a perfectly decent speech -- one that hit all the social conservative themes -- but the affect was flat, however smoothly the words were delivered. There simply may not be enough energy in the world to lift Romney over the hump posed before this crowd by his religion. (His flip-flops on social positions are far more forgivable than his professed belief in the Book of Mormon.) Giuliani accomplished what he came to do, which was to imply that he knew that, given his more liberal stances on gay rights and abortion, he couldn't expect members of this audience to support his primary bid, but to suggest that as a general election candidate, he wouldn't be so bad a bet, especially when one considers the alternative. Thompson excited no one, or so it seemed.

That left Mike Huckabee, who fortified his usual dish of right-wing social policy wrapped up in Bible verses with a good bit of red meat in the form of new U.N.-bashing and I.R.S.-trashing material, emerged as the natural contender for the allegiance of the base, leaving many to scratch their heads over right-wing leaders' hesitance to lend him their backing.

(The Washington Times reported that after all of the Republican presidential contenders had addressed the conference, religious-right leaders met in private to discuss backing one of the candidates, but no consensus was met. Mike Huckabee, however, did the best among the right-wing honchos.)

A former preacher, the Baptist Huckabee reminded the crowd that he was one of them, and then seemed to echo Dobson's near-threat to maybe bolt the party. Speaking of the basic tenets of right-wing social policy -- outlawing abortion and gay marriage first among them -- Huckabee said, "We believe in those things. We stand by those things. We live or die by those things...I do not spell G-O-D [as] G-O-P. Our party may be important, but our principles are even more important than anybody's political party."

It all sounded so familiar -- a candidate popular with the base who had little shot at the nomination, never mind the general election. But he could take Iowa and New Hampshire and go on to be the bane of the nominee's existence by accumulating enough delegates to make demands at the convention. Just like Pat Buchanan in 1996, who won control of the party platform by threatening to take his merry band of delegates out of the G.O.P. (That platform, written by Phyllis Schlafly, was an albatross hung around the neck of the nominee, Bob Dole -- a signal to the 2000 nominee to play ball with the right.)

At the press conference that followed Huckabee's speech, I asked Huckabee if his remarks indicated a willingness to march his delegates out of the G.O.P. "You know, there may come a time, if the Republican Party decides that it's going to change its platform where it no longer respects human life and no longer really holds to the concept of traditional marriage, you know, [that] I might not find myself at home in the G.O.P., but I don't personally feel that my goal in life is to lead a revolution out of the Republican Party," he replied. "My goal is to help the Republican Party to stay true to what's made it a strong, stable and victorious party. We win elections when we stick to our stuff. We lose elections when we slip off and get squishy."

So, it's not his goal to lead a revolution. That doesn't mean it can't happen, right? And it's not Dobson's intention to launch a third party, but if an "appropriate" candidate just happened to turn up on a "minor party" ticket, Dobson just might have to vote for him, capice? Now, let's have a little talk about that platform ...

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