The G.O.P. Mantra: Keep Dobson Happy
By James Carney/Washington
(TIME, May 11) -- Late last month, House Republican leaders gathered in Newt Gingrich's office to hear some sobering news from the man who tracks the party's chances in November's election. John Linder's message, contained in a confidential memo in advance of the April 23 meeting, was simple: the G.O.P. could lose its narrow 11-seat majority in the House if it didn't find a way to galvanize its grass-roots activists, many of whom are Christian conservatives.
Linder's audience knew to take the message seriously, because for months they had been hearing the same thing, and worse, from an even more indisputable source: James Dobson, the country's most powerful representative of conservative Christianity. Dobson, a psychologist and radio host who heads Focus on the Family, threatened earlier this year to abandon the Republican Party and form his own organization, taking with him some of the 28 million people who follow his broadcasts every week. In panicked response, G.O.P. leaders have moved away sharply from the do-little approach that has characterized Congress's deliberations since last summer in favor of an agenda aimed at "drawing distinctions"--read, picking fights--with Democrats and the White House on everything from abortion to Monica. Says Oklahoma's Ernest Istook, a religious conservative in the House: "It's been a long time coming, but the leadership has finally gotten the wake-up call."
And how. Though some party insiders are bewildered by it, Gingrich's tirade last week against the President ("This is not about sex... This is about lawbreaking," he said) was viewed by most Republicans as a play to Christian conservatives. And just in case anyone thought this was a passing outburst, he swore never to give another speech without mentioning the Clinton investigations. The Christian conservatives "expect us to say that this kind of conduct is unacceptable," says Senator John Ashcroft, who is hoping his own courtship of that constituency will land him in the White House.
Keeping Dobson and other Christian-right leaders happy has become the central preoccupation of Republican lawmakers. In the House, the legislative agenda is crammed with "pro-family" votes aimed at Dobson's constituency. Last week alone, the House voted to ban federal support of needle exchanges for drug addicts, passed a pilot program that would give public school children vouchers to attend private schools, and withdrew an $18 billion appropriation for the International Monetary Fund in a dispute with the Clinton White House over an antiabortion provision in a separate bill. And there's more to come. In June the House will consider Istook's Religious Freedom amendment to the Constitution, which would allow organized prayer in public schools. And before August, for the third time in three years, they will vote to outlaw "partial birth" abortions. The fact that much of this agenda will either die in the Senate or be vetoed by Clinton doesn't matter: the votes are about making politics, not law.
Even in the Senate, where lawmakers are usually more immune to pressure, the Christian right is proving its influence. Last week conservatives scored a victory when a bill designed to pay the overdue U.S. debt to the United Nations passed the Senate with an extraneous provision attached to it that would ban federal funding of family-planning organizations abroad that condone abortion as an option. But the most obvious nod to religious conservatives in the Senate involves the blockage of Clinton's nomination of James Hormel to be U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. Hormel is standard ambassadorial material--a businessman, a philanthropist, a former law school dean and, of course, a big-money donor to the Democratic Party. Under ordinary circumstances, Hormel's nomination would have sailed through the Senate with little notice. But Hormel, 65, is gay and a prominent advocate of gay rights, a background that drew the scrutiny and disapproval of groups like the Traditional Values Coalition and the Family Research Council, an offshoot of Dobson's Focus on the Family. After clearing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last fall, Hormel's nomination has been on hold. It will stay there, majority leader Trent Lott told TIME last week, for "the foreseeable future."
Not every Republican is comfortable with the influence Dobson and others are exerting over the party. "No matter what you do, they are never satisfied," complains an adviser to the G.O.P. House leadership. For now, however, Dobson's threat to bolt the party--and to work to defeat G.O.P. incumbents who don't vote according to his views--is being greeted with great solemnity. Republican House leaders will deliver a progress report to Dobson when he flies to Washington this week from his headquarters in Colorado Springs. And to keep the pressure on, the famously camera-shy Dobson will tour the networks for appearances on several political shows. As Dobson steps out, Republicans will have to show they can step into line.
--With reporting by Richard N. Ostling/New York