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Bluffing Without A Candidate - Putting the Fear of The Christian Right into the GOP

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The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus project.

If you're upset with the current Republican presidential field, a member of the Christian Right, and you get excited--not Larry Craig or David Vitter excited, mind you--for a good secret society, the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City was the place to be this past Saturday. Not that you could have scored an invite to this exclusive pity party. There, the conservative tastemakers comprising the Council of National Policy held one of their semi-secret gatherings, and during an even more secret side meeting, fifty-odd members bemoaned Rudy Giuliani's ever-consolidating lead in the Republican race and plotted their next move. Despite the secretive nature of CNP's meetings, what emerged publicly was that these religious leaders will consider throwing their weight behind a third-party candidate should Giuliani win the nomination. But while the Grand America Hotel resembles a palatial Vegas casino, the only gambling there this weekend was the bluff being sold by Dobson & Co.

Reporting on this side meeting of the holiest of the holy, the conservative news source WorldNetDaily summarized it thusly: "Not only was there a consensus among activists to withhold support for the Republican nominee, there was even discussion about supporting the entry of a new candidate to challenge the frontrunners." A savior, perhaps? But even the members of the CNP must realize the implausibility introducing a such a third-party candidate into the race and expecting any net gain for the social right.

We'll get to why this is and will remain a pipe dream in a minute, but for now, what's important is why such an idea escaped the confines of that secretive conference room. The short answer is that the CNP needs to put the fear of, well... them into the Republican party. As the Giuliani campaign gains steam, and as various suitors come a-callin' to woo the base (Freddie T.) only to leave their damsel in her same state of distress, that base is getting desperate. So now, they're hoping that the threat of losing the Evangelical vote in the general election will prove enough of a scare to derail Giuliani's candidacy.

This threat, however, is almost entirely empty. In a nutshell, the Christian Right's third-party pick would be no more than an Evangelical Ralph Nader--serving a symbolic role that does no more than siphon off votes from the more mainstream contender. The mere prospect of a far-right version of Nader should give the GOP chills, while thrilling Democrats. This conservative vote dilution would be the only practical consequence of running a third-party candidate against the Democratic nominee and Giuliani, but it gets the CNP no closer to putting the candidate of its choice in the White House. And one would have to wonder if finding and backing a sacrificial lamb, all in the name of taking a principled stand, would be worth the time and money. Moreover, placing such a third-party candidate to the right of Giuliani would implicitly highlight just how marginalized the Evangelical platform has become.

The other upshot of a third-party challenge to an official Giuliani nomination would be the sure retaliation by a Republican National Committee scorned. A candidate chosen by the social right, and the concomitant creation of a new political party for the express purpose of supporting him, would be a threat not only to Giuliani's candidacy (albeit a minor one), but more so to the institution of the GOP itself. Sure, the Christian Right would justify its actions claiming that it was betrayed by the GOP, but the GOP would claim the exact same betrayal, and the fight would get worse from there. While such infighting could make for good theater, the Right would be irrevocably damaged by this battle for conservative hegemony. And both sides know that neither can risk such a result.

Dobson's third-party bluff signals more than his displeasure with Giuliani and the current GOP slate. Whether he knows it or not, it may just be a lament at the dwindling influence of the Evangelical lobby on the party which has so effectively used it for the past few decades. No doubt the Christian Right had designs on becoming and remaining a perennial political force--the sine qua non of Republican electoral success. And why not think that such staying power was possible? Granted, one can only milk the get-out-the-vote power of the gay marriage red herring for so many electoral cycles, but those cycles had years of life left! As its influence ebbs, however, and its constituency becomes disillusioned with the political process that was for years kept deliberately separate from matters of faith, it may just be time for Dobson to go back to writing another of his tomes on child rearing. Or else he could try his luck in Vegas--but only if he can sell this bluff.

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