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It Isn't the Old Christian Right Anymore

Politics: New pragmatism includes focusing on 'secondary' abortion issues and Dole's choice for vice president.

April 29, 1996|MARK J. ROZELL and CLYDE WILCOX | Mark J. Rozell is a political scientist at the University of Virginia. Clyde Wilcox is associate professor of government at Georgetown University. They are coauthors of "Second Coming: The New Christian Right in Virginia Politics" (Johns Hopkins Press, 1996)

After George Bush's 1992 defeat, many suggested that his candidacy had been harmed by the GOP's alliance with the Christian right, that "family values" night at the Houston convention symbolized what was wrong with the GOP.

Fast forward to the post-1994 election analyses. According to that round of conventional wisdom, the Christian right provided the core of GOP grass-roots energy and support. The movement that had been declared a burden on the GOP had become the central source of party energy.

These examples say much about the treatment of the Christian right. Most observers have little in common with the movement and simply don't understand it. They are too prone first to dismiss it as irrelevant, then to overstate its impact.

These mistakes are not new. In the 1970s, when the Christian right was mobilizing, reporters missed the phenomenon. After the 1980 election, they marveled at its sudden national emergence. By the end of the 1980s, they declared that the movement on the wane, and after 1992, many said it was finished. By 1994, it was enormously powerful, and now observers are struggling to understand its impact on the Dole-Clinton contest.

Since the 1970s, the core of Christian right support has comprised about 10% to 15% of the population. Despite all of the rhetoric about the movement dying at some points and taking over American politics at others, its core of support has remained fairly steady.

The most egregious error in this election year has been equating Christian right strength with support for Pat Buchanan. Media reports repeated this error even though social conservatives were divided in their loyalties; in some cases, they favored Bob Dole over Buchanan.

There is evidence that movement activists are increasingly willing to back a mainstream conservative who can win. In that regard, much of the Christian right has become more pragmatic, willing to compromise and likely to use moderate-sounding rhetoric--in short, more influential not because of sheer numbers but because many members have learned how to play the political game.

Christian right groups have become effective at building coalitions with secular conservative groups, including antitax, pro-gun, right-to-work, English first, anti-immigration and education reform organizations. Christian right leaders have signaled a willingness to accept the necessity of compromise and to wait out change. This differs from the conventional wisdom that the Christian right is politically intolerant and makes uncompromising demands for immediate policy change.

Leaders understand the importance of broadening their agenda to include economic issues as well as abortion and family values. They communicate effectively in the secular language of politics and now appeal to more voters.

In this election year, if the Christian right continues to play it smart, we expect more moderate sounding language in the GOP anti-abortion plank. Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed has been negotiating quietly with GOP leaders to develop a plank that won't turn off moderate voters but will still affirm the value of life. We expect leaders to be careful about how they pressure Dole on controversial social issues. Because of his age, movement leaders will focus pressure on Dole in the vice presidential selection instead.

The movement will help Dole by focusing on what they perceive as Clinton's extremism. The Christian Coalition training manual offers advice on handling the abortion issue. It suggests that pro-life candidates should not pose the issue as pro-life vs. pro-choice but instead focus on such "secondary issues" as parental notification, taxpayer funding, waiting periods and "partial birth" abortions. The public largely supports such "reasonable restrictions," meaning that the pro-choice candidate can be tagged with the extremist label by pointing out his or her unwillingness to support popular restrictions. Clinton's veto of the ban on partial birth abortions opens him up to this charge and bolsters the opposition.

We also anticipate a serious effort to avoid any repeat of "family values" night. Dole shouldn't repeat Bush's error by giving in to Buchanan. Meanwhile, we expect leaders in the Christian right to work quietly to support Dole's wishes.

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