Goodbye abortion, hello Islamofascism? Christian Right powerbroker Pat Robertson handed his much-coveted endorsement to Giuliani yesterday, claiming "The overriding issue before the American people is the defense of our population from the blood lust of Islamic terrorists."
Does Robertson's endorsement represent a fundamental shift among social conservatives away from "values" in favor of national security? (Los Angeles Times) Or is it another sign of the disarray of the Christian Right, as has been widely touted in Campaign '08 coverage? Could Robertson's embrace of Rudy the Values Slayer be a "tragic" act of an aging leader who has lost his influence, perhaps his mind?
The Christian Right may well be as fractured as rumored. The lesson from history, however, suggests that current reports of its political death are much exaggerated.
In this year's Republican presidential contest, the relationship between the front-runners and the religious right is unfolding in ways uncannily similar to the 2000 race.
Remember Candidate Bush, the "compassionate conservative," the "different kind of Republican?" After seven years of conservative rule, it's hard to fathom that Bush was ever perceived as a moderate. But, he was, by many.
In the 2000 campaign, Bush marketed himself as a pragmatic centrist and flaunted his independence from the Right. The Republican establishment boasted that candidate Bush was at the head of their effort to defang the party's far Right. Leaders of the Republican right bemoaned the party's betrayal of conservatism, yet ultimately confided that they had no option but to go along to get along. The American media (with some notable exceptions) dutifully reported this storyline, and repeated time and time again that the differences between Bush and Gore were only a matter of degree.
Of course, Bush was no moderate. But he was liberated to campaign to the center by the deals he had struck, in private, with the Right.
Fourteen days after the 2000 election, rightwing powerbroker Grover Norquist told Newsweek that, although Bush publicly distanced himself from the Right, the candidate had agreed to their demands -- on guns, taxes, property rights, and the hot-button issues of the culture wars. "Went to everyone and got 'em signed up or neutralized, including me, two years before the election."
It was brilliant political rope-a-dope. Public protestations of weakness and the need to moderate; counter-punches thrown while the press and the public were thus distracted.
A year before election day 2000, conservative leaders were flamboyantly denouncing Texas Governor George W. Bush. On election day, 75 percent of Christian Right evangelical voters voted for Bush. Though evangelicals constituted only 25 percent of the population, they provided Bush with 40 percent of his total vote.
That result was in no small part due to Pat Robertson. Robertson was one of the first on the Right to publicly sign on with Bush in 1999, while most Christian Right leaders still sought his defeat.
At the time, Robertson's endorsement was covered as a pragmatic move, an admission that the Christian Right's program alienated too many Americans. Bush, we were led to believe, would be calling the shots with the social conservatives.
About eight weeks before the 2000 election, Robertson sent a letter to Christian Coalition members: "Our naysayers are in for a big shock this November!"
Could Americans be shocked again in November 2008?
The question today is, on whose terms has the Giuliani-Robertson alliance been consummated? Few individuals have done more than Pat Robertson to forge the Christian Right into the Republican party's "base." Robertson confidently reports that Giuliani has assured him that his judicial appointments will please social conservatives. Perhaps The War on Terror now trumps The Culture War for the religious right. The Bush presidency, however, proves that they are not mutually exclusive.
When it comes time for the '08 general election, the calamities of Republican rule will give Democrats the edge. Nonetheless, overconfidence is a danger. Underestimating the Republican electoral machine is today, as it was in 2000, the greatest pitfall. Democrats will need to keep the essential conservatism of today's Republican party in the forefront of their campaigns. And the media will need to investigate exactly what promises the Republican nominee makes and to whom. The broad failure to do so in 2000 is in part responsible for the alarming predicament in which the nation finds itself in the twilight of the Bush-Cheney era.
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