Back in May of 2000, I learned first-hand that James Dobson is a tough man to please.
Dobson, the prominent Christian conservative who believes that his religious brethren have the God-given right to vet Republican presidential candidates, invited some political journalists to dine with him at his headquarters in Colorado Springs. As we silently forked our pasta salads, in his oak-trimmed boardroom, Dobson explained why he was so disappointed in frontrunner George W. Bush.
Bush, apparently, was not sufficiently conservative, because he had not yet categorically renounced the idea of choosing Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge as his running mate. Ridge was a defender of abortion rights, and this triggered Dobson's ire. Basically, he was threatening to bolt the GOP and take his followers (four million listeners, six million on his email list) along with him.
That day, he told us: "A (party) that abandons the unborn child would send a significant number of people to look for another party to represent them...It wouldn't take much. You cannot contradict, you cannot insult the base of your support...I know the Christian community. I hear from 280,000 of them per month. I know them probably better than anyone else does. I know there are some things that set them on fire, and the unborn child is one of them...When you say to (Christian conservatives) that, 'We can compromise on somebody who is a heartbeat away from the presidency,' there's a lot of agitation about that...If you stand for everything, you stand for nothing."
Bush, of course, did not choose Ridge, and Dobson stayed in the fold. But you get the idea:
Dobson (and a number of his allies) will vet only those GOP candidates who are deemed to be true believers. Political compromise is for the sinners.
Which brings us to the present moment, an unhappy one for Dobson - and for all his religious right compatriots. They just can't seem to find an '08 Republican candidate who conforms to their ideals, and they are squabbling with each other about what to do. And this is potentially significant, because Christian conservatives comprise roughly one-third of the GOP electorate; it's rough for a Republican to win a general election if that much of the base is dissatisfied and therefore unmotivated to vote en masse.
Over the weekend, in Salt Lake City, the religious-right leaders conducted a private emergency meeting, in the hopes of sorting out the situation. Dobson reportedly flew in. The upshot: They're threatening to bolt the GOP, and urge their followers to do the same, if abortion-rights defender Rudy Giuliani wins the nomination next year. They signed onto a resolution stating that "if the Republican party nominates a pro-abortion candidate, we will consider running a third-party candidate."
Democrats, of course, would be thrilled if Dobson and his friends follow through on their threat, and split the Republican electorate in time for the autumn '08 finale. But that prospect is a long way off. What's noteworthy right now is that religious right leaders are dividing into two camps: the purists and the pragmatists. That, by itself, signals that spirits are low within the GOP coalition.
The purists, in search of a savior, find fault with most of the current GOP crop. Many of them dislike Fred Thompson, for instance, because he once did some lobbying for an abortion rights group, because he seems insufficiently committed to supporting a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and because he seems insufficiently church-going. As Dobson railed in a recent email to his followers, "He has no passion, no zeal...And yet he is apparently the Great Hope that burns in the breasts of many conservative Christians? Well, not for me, my brothers. Not for me!" (Here's where it gets real complicated: Some of the purists do like Thompson, and believe that Dobson is being unfair; last week, another leader, Richard Land, told Christian Broadcast News, "I’ve received phone calls and emails from Southern Baptists about Senator Thompson. They are all furious at Doctor Dobson.")
Anyway, he purists don't like Giuliani either, for the aforementioned reason, and because he has a messy personal history. They don't like John McCain, because he has warred with the religious right leaders in the past, and also seems to have insufficient zeal for their issues. And they're wary of Mitt Romney, because of their suspicions of his Mormon faith, and because Romney now professes to be for their issues, after years of being against their issues.
But the religious right leaders can't even agree among themselves on how to proceed. The pragmatists include Gary Bauer, who joined the weekend summit by phone and reportedly warned that he and his colleagues should refrain from infighting, lest the nation wind up with Hillary Clinton in the White House. (Indeed, some grassroots Christian conservatives seem willing - at least according to the polls - to ignore Giuliani's social liberalism, and focus on his potential electability, if only to stop Hillary.) On the other hand, Bauer also made some purist noises, by agreeing with his colleagues that if an abortion-rights defender wins the nomination, "it will blow up the GOP."
At this point, there's probably only one thing that Giuliani can do to tamp down this incipient revolt. He'll probably need to address the assembled religious right leaders, and conveniently arrange for his cellphone to ring midway through:
"Excuse me, I need to take this...'Hello? Hiiiiiii....Well, I'd love to talk, but I'm kind of busy right now...I'm talking to the defenders of the faith, isn't that wonderful? Can I call you back later, tell you how it went?...Great...Can't wait to talk to you privately, just you and me...Yes, I love our relationship, too...Love you, bye.'....Sorry for the interruption, folks. That was God."