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Jewish World Review March 1, 2000 / 24 Adar I, 5760

Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly
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The Christian Right: Past Its Prime . . .

      "I am a conservative, my friends, a proud conservative, who has faith in the people I serve. But those who purport to be defenders of our party, but who in reality have lost confidence in the Republican message, are attacking me, they are people who have turned good causes into businesses. . . . We are the party of Ronald Reagan, not Pat Robertson. We are the party of Theodore Roosevelt, not the party of special interests. We are the party of Abraham Lincoln, not Bob Jones. Join us. Join us."     

--Sen. John McCain
Virginia Beach, Feb. 28

With these and other equally blunt words, delivered on a primary's eve in the belly of the beast, John McCain made it official and irrevocable: He is not running to win the White House as the leader of the Republican Party as it is currently constituted; he is running to win as the leader of a new Republican Party, one that would not include as important players the Christian right preacher-politicians who have long dominated the party that exists now.

It is possible to view McCain's Virginia Beach speech as merely tactical. Assuming that he was going to lose Virginia to George W. Bush anyway, McCain decided to tell off Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on their home turf in order to (1) further, and greatly, encourage centrist Republicans, crossover Democrats and independents to vote for him in states where he has a better chance, such as Washington, New York and California, and (2) media-inoculate himself against the effects of a Virginia loss. This is more or less analogous to what McCain did in Iowa, where he offset what he knew would be a heavy loss to Bush by grandstanding his opposition to government subsidies for ethanol-producing farmers, thus providing a rationale for what would have happened anyway.

And it is possible to view the speech as merely strategic. Knowing that the hard-core religious right is lost to him regardless, McCain made a show of heaving over those who had never been aboard in the first place, figuring that this would help him reach the Republican nomination with his coalition of pluralities, and he would then, in the general election, win back a goodly number of the conservative party regulars he had chosen to infuriate--after all, they are hardly going to vote for Al Gore.

Of course, the speech was tactical and strategic, and on this level it was a good deal less audacious than it was designed to appear. McCain knows that he gains much but loses little by denouncing two of the religious right's most prominent leaders (men who have already urged their followers to vote against McCain) as parasites on the Republican body electorate. And McCain was careful to exempt from his denunciation the powerful James Dobson, who does not support McCain but has not openly acted against him.

But the Virginia Beach speech was more than this. McCain crossed a true line on Monday. He not only rejected Falwell and Robertson, he rejected the idea of the Republican Party as defined by the absolutist values of the religious right--which is to say, he rejected the Republican Party as it stands. McCain made it clear that he would allow Christian conservatives a place at the table, but a relatively small place--just another mouth to feed. He would stand with the social conservatives on some causes, but they would be competing for favor on an issue by issue basis, and they would be competing against the people who elected McCain--people who either are opposed to, or do not care about, their crusade. The result would be a Republican majority in which the Christian right would be a marginalized minority.

This is what McCain promised in Virginia Beach, and this promise is a large one. But, again, it is not necessarily as high-risk as it may seem. McCain is recognizing not what is probable, but what has already occurred. The hour of the Christian right is well past. The movement has been without effective leadership for years, and rank-and-file Christian activists have grown profoundly demoralized by their failure to achieve their goals through the political process, and have turned away from it. As Margaret Talbot reported in a recent cover story in the New York Times magazine, Christian activists who 10 years ago were seeking to remake the secular world in God's image now seek only to escape that world.

The Republican candidate who bows to the religious right is bowing not to might but (mostly) to memory. The Republican candidate who kicks the religious right (now that it is fairly safely down) is also playing to memory. But the first candidate is binding himself to past power. The second is exploiting the past to build a future power.

Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


02/24/00: McCain's Majority
02/16/00: Sharpton's Supplicants
02/09/00: The GOP Pilgrims' Sad Tale
02/02/00: Fodder For the GOP
01/26/00: Million-Dollar Mediocrity
01/19/00: Campaign Reform: Let's Pretend
01/12/00: Never Again? Oh, Never Mind
01/05/00: Turn Off, Tune Out, Drop In
12/22/99: Gore's TV Gambit
12/15/99: Campaigns Do Clarify
12/08/99: Kosovo's Killers
12/01/99: Not Ready for Prime Time?
11/24/99: The Company He Keeps
11/17/99: Republican Illusion
11/10/99: The Know-Nothing Media
11/03/99: Necessary Partisanship
10/27/99: Buchanan's Gift to George W. Bush
10/21/99: Who are the real friends of the poor?
10/14/99: Gore's 'courage'!?
10/08/99: Republican Stunts
09/23/99: Buchanan's folly
09/16/99: Beatty and Buchanan: That's Entertainment!
09/09/99: Puerto Rico Surprise (Cont'd)
09/02/99: Puerto Rico Surprise
08/12/99:The Age of No Class
08/05/99: Assessing Welfare Reform
07/29/99: On the Wrong Side
07/21/99: Mass Sentimentality
07/15/99: Blame Hillary
07/08/99: Guide to the Arts: For Your Summer Reading . . .
06/30/99: A Perfectly Clintonian Doctrine
06/25/99:Smorgasbord by the Sea
06/16/99: A National Calamity
06/09/99: Stumbling Forward
06/02/99: Commencement '90s-Style
05/26/99: Will we ever learn? Clintochio is a lying ...
05/19/99: Comforting Milosevic
05/13/99: Short-Order Strategists
05/06/99: Four Revolting Spectacles

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