It’s an axiom of politics that a party at war with itself cannot win. But that lesson seems lost on Republicans of the religious right, many of whom are determined to purge from the ranks of the GOP all those who fail to toe the line.
The religious right’s growing clout was evident in 1996, when it foiled Bob Dole’s bid to put the phrase “Tolerance is a virtue” into the party’s anti-abortion platform. And now these conservatives have come up with a new litmus test: They want the Republican National Committee to deny money to candidates who oppose a ban on a procedure known by its foes as “partial-birth abortion.”
This ban will be debated by the RNC at a winter meeting that begins today in Palm Springs, Calif. It probably will be defeated, thanks to a fierce counterattack by the party establishment. But this bruising fracas, which has dragged on for weeks, is stark evidence the GOP is increasingly a hostage to its most outspoken ideologues.
Start with the fact that the resolution was offered by Tim Lambert, a Texas party official who sought in 1996 to deny convention delegate credentials to Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson because of her moderate record on abortion. And the resolution has the full backing of Gary Bauer, the most visible religious-right leader in the GOP.
Are these activists worried about alienating middle-of-the-road voters or turning off the party’s traditional big-money contributors? No, said Jeff Bell, a top Bauer fund-raiser: “I don’t see the downside. … The resolution is a very good way to make a point.”
In essence, he said, the late-term abortion procedure is infanticide; opposition to infanticide should be a “core principle” of the party; and those Republicans who disagree - notably Northeastern moderates, such as New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, who defend abortion rights - should be punished financially by the RNC.
Jack Pitney, a former national party official, said that’s absurd. “The idea of denying money to our own people because of a policy disagreement - I’ve never seen anything like that before,” he said. “Republicans have developed the nasty habit of shooting each other. This move is the political equivalent of smashing the china.”
The irony, he said, is that partial-birth abortion has been a winning issue for Republicans. Many Democrats oppose the procedure; so does 75 percent of the public. Unfortunately, said Pitney, “we seem to enjoy turning our assets into liabilities.”
Rob Boston, a biographer of Pat Robertson and a longtime observer of the religious right, believes the GOP is merely reaping what it sowed: “They have assiduously courted the religious right as voters, but this is part of the right’s baggage - the tendency to take things to an extreme,” he said.
“So now this could be the Republican establishment’s worst nightmare. The servants are becoming the masters, and that could wind up reshaping the whole party image.”
A separate skirmish was fought in California this week - and the religious right triumphed. In a primary to fill a vacant congressional seat, Tom Bordonaro, a conservative backed by Bauer, defeated Brooks Firestone, a mainstream “pro-choicer,” thereby embarrassing the party establishment, which had handpicked Firestone. Bauer’s man had trumpeted his opposition to partial-birth abortions.
Tanya Melich, a prominent New York Republican who defends abortion rights, said: “These ideologues have been trying to get their hands on the party machinery for a long time. They figure, ‘If we can change the structure of how the party works - where the money comes from, where it goes - that would be a big step toward taking over.”’ One major Pennsylvania party donor, requesting anonymity to avoid “making new enemies,” said, “It’s a terrible idea to have a litmus test on anything,” that such tests are “bad for fund raising” and deter moderate Republicans from running for office.
The latter outcome, in particular, is fine with Jeff Bell. What he and his colleague Bauer envision is a GOP that gets less money from what they call “the country-club financial elite” - which has always prevailed upon party leaders to play down the social issues such as abortion - and more money from the church-loving, working-class “grass roots,” the people Bauer calls “Kmart Republicans.”
Yet this fight for the party’s soul doesn’t merely pit old-line moderates against the religious right. More significant at the moment is that a lot of Clinton-hating, Reagan-loving conservatives believe as well that the religious right is bent on driving the party over a cliff. This is not healthy; if the party can’t sort itself out, what’s a voter to think?
Ed Rollins, the ex-Reagan strategist, warned: “If (we) attempt to cut off resources to people who can get elected and who represent many of the ideas of this party, then I think we’ll diminish ourselves.”
Even Ralph Reed, the ex-Christian Coalition leader who has set up shop as a party tactician, refuses to endorse the idea of turning off the money spigot on dissenters. In TV appearances, he said only that the GOP should “encourage” and “chide” its candidates to support a ban on partial-birth abortions.
Bell argues that he merely wants the GOP to live up to its billing as the anti-abortion party. At the 1996 convention, he pointed out, the social conservatives were virtually silenced; there was virtually no mention of the abortion issue from the podium. Those days are over, he vowed. “The grass roots should resist all future attempts by party leaders to sweep us under the rug,” he said.
“I’m not out there asking for a (litmus) test on candidates,” but he nevertheless insists that the party’s modest donors - the people who give $10 at a time - don’t want their money going to candidates who back abortion. Moreover, he said he believes Republicans can’t win the next presidential race unless they play up the conservative social issues: “The economy is doing well, so we can’t promise ‘economic prosperity’ in a race against Al Gore.”
And even if the Lambert resolution loses at the RNC, as Bell expects, the religious conservatives win anyway. They have sent the message that they are playing for keeps. They already wield considerable clout in at least 18 Republican state parties, according to one survey, and presidential aspirants know it.