Thursday, November 11, 2004

The recent debate over the effect of the religious right on the GOP and the administration has started me wondering about the possibility of a split in the Republican party. The question centers around whether the GOP will go back to its modern corporate-sponsored roots, or if it will begin to give more voice to the christian right who believe that they won the election for Bush. The christian right, led by folks like James Dobson, certainly feels they are owed. They no longer want to be merely foot-soldiers, but king makers.

Yet as Kevin Drum pointed out the other day, the "values"-oriented campaign themes have taken a back seat to what seem to be the administration's priorities. The first few topics President Bush has focused on have been social security reform, tax cuts and oil. These are all topics of greatest interest to the fiscally-oriented Republicans. If the President has a "mandate" and intends on spending his political capital, are these the issues the christian right was expecting him to be focusing on? I have my doubts. As an article on Daily Kos points out, the President is already encountering resistance in the legislature to some of his plans. In this case its immigration reform. It involves a moderate program (in relation to the conservative no-tolerance position) that seeks to allow guest workers in from Mexico, a program conservatives hate.

Former GOP consultant Arthur Finkelstein believed the Bush campaign strategy split the country on cultural and religious lines and invested the christian right with an importance and value that exceeds their actual influence. He believes the Republicans have saddled themselves with a group that could potentially be the decisive faction in upcoming elections. The christian right certainly believes they are the decisive players for the future.

It's going to take some time to figure out how much of an influence they do have as new appointments are made, legislative committees are reshuffled and the legislative session starts back up. One case that may serve as an early guide is the replacement of John Ashcroft with Alberto Gonzales. Ashcroft was a friend to the christian right, while many conservatives oppose Gonzales for being soft on abortion rights. Gonzales, however, is a long-time associate of the Bush family and has been very helpful as the White House Chief Consul in furthering the administration's foreign policy objectives (Gonzales was the author of the controversial memos stating how the administration could avoid adhering to the Geneva Conventions, this over the outrage and protest of the military. A group that will be most affected by any changes in international war law). The debate over Gonzales has already begun.

The current debate has led me to wonder about the possibility of a split in the Republican Party. The christian right is very vocal and tend to vote as a group. An administration that does not sufficiently kowtow to their wishes, may find themselves on the sharp end of their ideology as Sen. Specter (R-Penn) found out last week. Sen. Specter, who is in line to be Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, publicly warned (unwisely) President Bush not to push on any anti-choice judges. The christian right's retribution was fast and furious. James Dobson, of the christian right group Focus on the Family, said on ABC's This Week that Sen. Specter needs to be "derailed." The hits came fast and furious and Specter has since publicly groveled for absolution. Even if he survives and is named Chairman, its doubtful he will cause much trouble for the administration.

Sen. Specter has been no friend to Democrats and is hardly much of a moderate, yet even he received the lash for stepping out of line, and into the sights of the newly-emboldened christian right. If this pattern continues, the moderate Republicans may quickly lose their patience with the christian right. The President himself may soon come under fire from them as well. A vocal, motivated and substantial fraction of a party may not tolerate not being pushed to the side for long.

The surprising enthusiasm for Judge Roy Moore (who has become a sort of christian-right folk hero) early in the year may indicate that the christian right may not wait for the party to come around. Judge Moore became a hero to the christian right when he refused to remove, as ordered by a federal judge, the 2.6 ton ten commandments monument he had installed in the atrium of the Alabama Supreme Court. The monument was soon removed by the state, as was Judge Moore. However, it was a federal ruling that finally removed the monument, thus confirming for the christian right that the federal judiciary was godless and cementing Moore's credentials with them. Moore openly intimated he was thinking of challenging Bush, and there were plenty of christians lining up to support him.

The Republicans will ignore the will of the christian right at their peril. The newfound influence of the christian right may not, as Finkelstein thought, elevate them to king-makers, but may actually split the Republicans into two camps, fighting it out for control of the party.

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