Monday, May 15, 2006

Writing History in Advance

The New York Times is reporting that the Christian Right might withhold its support for Republicans in the 2006 election unless the GOP leadership starts getting its major priorities through congress.

Noam Schieber thinks its a bluff. But I think its shrewd politics, and not because I think it will work. There is simply no way that the Federal Marriage Amendment, a bar on stem cell research, further restrictions on contraceptive use, or any other such policies are going to pass by the time we get to midterms. But that is not what I think the Religious Right's leadership is going for here. I think they've already decided that the GOP is going to take a considerable hit in the 2006 elections, and is acting to make that outcome seem resultant of insufficient social conservatism.

Here's how the game works. The operating assumption is that the GOP is going to lose seats in 2006. If Dobson and his pals do their normal dirty work for the party, the best case scenario is that their role will be ignore in the stories documenting the Republican collapse. The worst case scenario is that reporters will write that the 2006 elections prove that the evangelical bloc is weaker than it used to be and unable to wield the same sort of clout we saw in the mid-90s and early part of this millennium. At the bottom of the article Grover Norquist argues that this will be the likely upshot: "If the Republicans do poorly in 2006, the establishment will explain that it was because Bush was too conservative, specifically on social and cultural issues." Either outcome is bad for them, because it removes them from their pedestal as perhaps the central interest group operating in Washington today. And thus the GOP won't pay them proper heed when trying to rebuild their fortunes.

However, if the Christian right publicly withholds their support for the GOP, then the story changes entirely. The outcome is still roughly the same--Republicans lose seats (probably more than they otherwise would have, but even still). But now reporters will, when writing about the GOP failure, incorporate a narrative about how their religious base abandoned them due to seeming disinterest. The organizations themselves will try and spin this narrative into the primary reason for the GOP disaster--had they properly courted Christian groups, they wouldn't be in the fix they're in. The upshot of this whole dynamic is that the "conventional wisdom" will pretty much mandate that the GOP repair its ties with Falwell and his buddies if they are to regain dominance. In other words, Norquist has it exactly backwards: the Religious Right will be blamed for 2006 only if it does participate at full strength.

The only way this could possibly backfire is if the GOP loses control of congress due to Christian "disenchantment" by a narrow enough margin such that they'd have probably kept control had the Christian GOTV organization been in full swing. But I'd wager that this is a price Christian leaders are willing to pay. A few years in the political wilderness is well worth being at the steering wheel of the GOP when it makes its comeback.


flaime said...

The only hope for Americans who wish to remain free of the totalitarian impulses of the Christian right is that they lose by a huge margin and then the left does a good job this time, as opposed to being the major screwups they were in the 70s and 80s.

Eva said...

I have to disagree (surprise!) with Norquist: if the GOP loses seats in midterms, it's because they've bungled notably in policy issues (Katrina, Iraq), not because some of them are socially conservative. I think as long as Iraq casts a shadow on the GOP (i.e., at least as long as Bush is in office, and as long after that as some prominent Republicans keep defending it - which, as it looks now, won't be very long at all), they'll actually be grateful for the hardcore Christian right because they mobilize voters who will likely never agree with the Democrats, no matter how badly the GOP is screwing up on actual, relevant issues.

However, I can see the logic in the decision to hold back from supporting the GOP for different self-interested reasons. There is a small and active group of voters who determine their political allegiances based solely on social issues; they'll follow Dobson and Robertson no matter what. Then there's a much larger group of voters who are currently affiliated with the Christian right because they agree with those social ideals, but they don't vote solely on social issues and can be lost. So if the Christian right appears, to those voters, to be blindly endorsing a GOP that is screwing up every other issue, they're going to lose moderate membership - and that might hurt them more, since I don't think there's a huge risk that the GOP will stop courting the hardcore Christian right in the near future.