1. Response to Dobson's Retirement: Meh?
James Dobson's retirement as chairman of the board of Focus on the Family (FOF) has been in the works for six years, a planned phase-out of administrative duties while he continues his radio program and writing. So why was the official announcement met with headlines like "Can Focus Survive Without Dobson As Leader?"
Can FOF survive on its 2007 revenues in excess of $128 million? Yes, it downsized recently, laying off about 200 workers, but FOF still maintains a staff of 950. Don't cue the violins yet.
Even if Dobson's announcement was not timed to coincide with last week's annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the convergence was fraught with symbolism. The religious right has been the backbone of the Republican Party, influencing policy through a quid pro quo with its formidable get-out-the-vote prowess. Yet to move the GOP to ideological purity, Dobson overplayed his hand by repeatedly making empty, foot-stomping threats to abandon it for a third party.
Dobson still has many admirers of his authoritarian advice on family life and child-rearing. Although his popularity has slipped among younger evangelicals, his puritanical vision nonetheless reverberates among them.
On the political stage, however, there's no doubt that he has overstayed his welcome with his no-compromise strategy of requiring that Republicans kiss his ring or risk defeat. He fancied himself a kingmaker for presidential candidates, a role the media was far too eager to reinforce. Religious-right functionaries still claim to look for his imprimatur for presidential candidates, but grass-roots activists have already moved on. That doesn't mean they're not looking for the same qualities in a candidate. They're just no longer waiting for Dobson to tell them who to vote for.
2. CPAC Regroups: "Social Conservatives" Still Reign.
If there were any doubt about the future role of the religious right in the conservative movement, it was erased during CPAC. As Mike Huckabee put it, "The fortunes of fiscal and social conservatives are interwoven. Both wings of [the] party are needed for the conservative movement to fly."
Huckabee insisted that Republicans "didn't lose because of social conservatives but because we forgot what we stood for as a party. We didn't lose because we wanted to save unborn babies but because of the foolishness of a $1,400 trash can and an $87,000 rug," referring to the excesses of former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain.
In case the connection is lost on some readers, Huckabee was reminding the audience of how he was "prophetic" (a word choice that could not have been accidental) during the presidential primaries in alerting Republicans to the "Washington to Wall Street axis of power." For Huckabee, the Republican Party's downfall was its tight relationship with Wall Street, not its continuing engagement in culture-war hectoring.
Romney, who represents the fallen Wall Street wing of the party to Huckabee and his supporters, tried to burnish his credentials by claiming, "I have stood in the center of the battlefield on every major social issue. I fought to preserve our traditional values and to protect the sanctity of life." Of course, those fights occurred after he was pro-choice and more supportive of gay rights than Ted Kennedy.
Although Romney topped the CPAC straw poll, suggesting that conservatives are not demanding a spotless social-conservative record, a national CNN poll of Republicans found him bested by both Huckabee and Sarah Palin, heroine-in-absentia for many CPAC attendees.
And what of Bobby Jindal? I met a very lonely member of the Indian American Republican Council in the CPAC exhibit hall, touting Jindal as the party's future. That was before Jindal's brave, standing-up-to-the-red-tape story completely unraveled.
3. Obama: The Socialist Antichrist.
The conservative movement is quaking in its boots as they gird themselves for Democratic rule, which they portray as "European-style socialism." (Though its activists would say those are military boots, and there is no quaking; they're ready to fight.)
Everything European is more secular, more baby-hating, and more effeminate than any other brand of anything. It's like choosing a croissant over biscuits and gravy, Bordeaux over Budweiser, condoms over abstinence, or any other ridiculous supposed sins of the effete.
The berating of supposed "socialism" is not just an echo of cultural iconography of the rugged individualist American who brooks no government handouts or highfalutin food. It has roots in Christian fundamentalism, like that of religious-right granddaddy and renowned chronicler of the impending apocalypse Tim LaHaye. According to Chip Berlet, an expert on right-wing movements at Political Research Associates, LaHaye claims that Satan himself "engineered" the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, bringing us the New Deal. That, in LaHaye's mind, was a conspiracy to turn the Constitution "upside down."
What most Americans call liberalism, LaHaye describes as an "alien philosophy." It is "antithetical" to the Bible, an "antichrist conspiracy" that "dominates the public school system from kindergarten through graduate school," controls the media and entertainment industry, and "elects a predominance of liberals to both parties in our national government."
Most elected Republicans would stop short of that in public, but their rhetoric at CPAC had that apocalyptic flavor. Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, complained, "A nation that raises its children in government schools cannot expect its people to stand for the principles of freedom." Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, added, "The laws of nature and of nature's God are the only touchstones of truth," and "the purpose of government is to secure these natural rights." But when "government goes beyond its high mission," it "replaces nature's God with a regulatory state."
4. Dancing Around Roe.
At the CPAC panel, "New Challenges in the Culture War," a powerful word was left unspoken: Roe.
Janice Shaw Crouse, a fellow at Concerned Women for America (run by LaHaye's wife Beverly), argued that Obama is fulfilling the wishes of "radical feminists." Under Obama, "there will be new devastation on the cultural front," as "the unrelenting efforts to bulldoze Judeo-Christian values from the public square will be increasingly more blatant during the Obama administration."
Crouse and Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey and founder of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, zeroed in on issues other than overturning Roe. They'll target abortion through appropriations bills, they said, and attempt to deprive family-planning providers here and abroad of funding. "The God-given rights Obama talks about are not given to unborn," Smith complained. "The most persecuted minority in America today are unborn children."
5. Can a Muslim Hang at CPAC?
Muhammad Ali Hasan, a Colorado Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the state House last year, made a debut appearance at CPAC, but he apparently didn't get the memo. "The problem with Republicans and the conservative movement right now," he said, "is we've identified the wrong enemy. Our enemies are not Muslims, are not gays, Mexicans, or immigrants -- our enemies are labor unions and bailouts."
Oops. To his credit, Hasan says he wants to end racism and xenophobia among conservatives, but no doubt he faces a daunting challenge. I caught up with Akir Kahn, who works for Hasan's Muslims for America, which was founded to support George W. Bush in 2000 and now boasts the support of Grover Norquist, if not rank-and-file conservative activists. Kahn told me that films like "Obsession," "The Third Jihad," and "Homegrown Jihad," which was being distributed a few booths away by the Christian Action Network, are "hurting America's national security" by showcasing alleged terrorists rather than moderate Muslims like himself.
At CPAC, Kahn said, "people come to this booth, and they think it's oxymoronic to be a Muslim and be an American."
I asked Kahn whether he was troubled by Republican smears that Obama was a closet Muslim during the campaign. Kahn claimed that unspecified Democrats also fueled the Obama rumors and that Colorado Democrats ran anti-Hasan robo-calls questioning why he didn't use his first name, Muhammad, while campaigning. Wendy Norris, editor of the Colorado Independent, which covered the Hasan race and its several colorful twists and turns, told me, "We never heard about any robo-calls. Even rumors to that effect would have been the talk of the small mountain communities in the district."
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