Conservatives in denial

At a Christian Coalition gala, Prince Charming, staying put in Texas, sends his regards by videotape. Still, the group stands by its man.

By Alicia Montgomery

Published October 2, 2000 6:50PM (EDT)

The program called for business attire, but the closing night of the Christian Coalition convention proved more like a prom for the faithful. With a tuxedoed band playing jazz standards from the stage, several of the ladies swept into the hotel ballroom Saturday in floor-length gowns and strappy heels, accompanied by proud husbands or fathers. Pearls and sequins and yards of satin glowed in the lavender light, giving the evening the air of a multigenerational Cinderella story.

But what if Prince Charming never showed? In a break with Republican tradition, George W. Bush stood up the three-day Christian Coalition event, and didn't even dispatch running mate Dick Cheney to deliver his regrets. Instead, the veep hopeful's wife, culture warrior Lynne Cheney, was the highest Team Bush member to appear in the flesh, speaking to the group Friday. Bush himself confined his remarks to a six-minute video played at the event on Saturday.

Even then, he didn't stand too close to the GOP's longtime allies. Bush's message hit the same "compassionate conservative" notes that he has been sounding since the end of the primaries, with no reference to his favorite political philosopher, Jesus Christ. School prayer, gay rights and secular culture -- all hot-button issues for those in attendance -- didn't make the cut either.

Though Bush did talk a bit about abortion, he couched his intentions in the most moderate language possible. He never brought up last week's Food and Drug Administration approval of the RU-486 abortion pill, and kept his promises to work against Roe vs. Wade on the "hearts and minds" level. "Should I be elected," Bush vowed, "I will lead our nation toward a culture that values life -- the life of the elderly and the sick, the life of the young and the life of the unborn." That -- and his oft-repeated promise to sign a ban on "partial-birth" abortion -- was all he would commit to.

If Bush's snub doesn't seem like that big a deal, imagine the Democrats sending Hadassah Lieberman to an NAACP or AFL-CIO convention as their standard-bearer. Self-described Christian conservatives still make up about one-third of the Republican Party, and they have been considered prime get-out-the-vote foot soldiers ever since the early Reagan years. There's also a distinct note of ingratitude about Bush's absence, considering that it was this wing of the party that saved him from the unexpected challenge by John McCain in the primaries.

When the Bush-inevitability machine got hit by McCain's "Straight Talk Express" in New Hampshire, the Texas governor flew into the embrace of Christian conservatives in South Carolina. And they returned the gesture. Right-wing groups made Bush their man, slamming McCain as a closet liberal and picking ideological fights with the Arizona senator over razor-thin differences between his and Bush's record. When McCain pushed back, calling for Bush to quit letting Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell run the GOP, Christian conservatives eagerly buried the heretic in Virginia and on Super Tuesday.

But that was the first step of a tricky dance: Bush talked a moderate game and made conservatives moves, and the Christian Coalition kept its collective mouth shut. After McCain's demise, Bush dropped the holy pose. He began flirting with pro-choice running mates like Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. That earned him a warning from some Christian conservatives, but not from Robertson, who promised not to demand an abortion litmus test. Bush went on to pick strict pro-lifer Cheney. Christians got the hint: Be quiet and you'll still get your way.

So the smile-athon at the Republican Convention -- where Christian conservatives kept a low profile -- was just fine with Robertson. Away from the cameras and the mike at the official convention site, Robertson happily declared Bush "the candidate of the religious right" in a speech to thousands of supporters.

As far as most of those gathered this weekend were concerned, that is still the case, and they were inclined to forgive Bush's absence. "I'm sure he's very busy," said Lucielle Dismukes, a coalition member from South Carolina. "He's got other things to do," echoed Glenda Branswon, another South Carolinian.

Rather than wanting to punish Bush for his inattention, many participants seemed to understand that running too conservative a race would be a liability. "We need to grow up," said Susan Renne, an anti-abortion activist from Texas. Though she felt that Republicans could still win if they embraced pro-life issues, she recognized that a strong anti-abortion stand could turn off some swing voters.

Christine Stewart of Illinois, one of a sizable contingent of Gen X-ers at the convention, backed Bush's resistance to an abortion litmus test on Supreme Court nominees. "I'd rather he not make promises he couldn't keep," Stewart said. As for his absence, she added that no one should come to a Christian Coalition event for a political dog-and-pony show. "If people came here just to see George Bush, they came for the wrong reason."

Others, however, would not turn the other cheek on Bush's neglect of the meeting. More than 100 of the discontented and/or curious crammed into a small hotel lounge where Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan made a play for their affections. He strode in after his "now you see her, now you don't" running mate, Ezola Foster, and was greeted with lusty chants of "Go, Pat, go."

At least one attendee meant "Go away." "You're a helper of Gore, you son of a bitch!" came a shout from the back. But the rest of the crowd stayed to hear the conservative commentator disparage his former party for its "love 'em and leave 'em" attitude toward the Christian Coalition.

"In 1992, after I was defeated [in the Republican primaries], I supported George Bush Sr.," Buchanan said. "Has anyone seen him at the Christian Coalition since then?" From all corners of the room came shouts of "No."

"In 1996," Buchanan continued, "I stood with you after I was defeated behind Bob Dole. Has anyone seen Bob Dole recently?"

With a stronger voice, the audience replied, "No."

"If they won't come see you, can you trust them to fight for you?" Buchanan asked finally. Everyone knew his answer.

The recovering Republican went on to warn members of the audience not to allow themselves to be taken for granted again, and reminded them that they had a higher mission than remaining players in official Washington. "It is not our duty to sup at the table of power," Buchanan declared. "Our obligation is to sup at the table of righteousness."

Most of the crowd ate that up. Though Buchanan skipped an official question-and-answer session with the press afterward, he spent half an hour working the room. He was mobbed by supporters armed with disposable cameras and autograph-ready scraps of paper, and coalition members peppered him with praise for his steadfastness. "You've got my vote," said one eager Buchananite from Massachusetts. "Bush can't win my state anyway." "He's not half the man you are," said one Florida woman.

Outside the lounge, the Buchanan love-in was contested by a handful of Bush backers. "I had a lot of respect for Pat Buchanan when he was a Republican," said Nancy Schrader of Pennsylvania. "But I won't vote for anyone running in the party of Jesse Ventura."

Perhaps to keep the evening light, Robertson addressed the Bush absence by saying as little as possible about it. Though he went out of his way to slam Al Gore, President Clinton and a mysterious alliance of feminists, homosexuals, communists and atheists for systematically destroying American values, he didn't slam Bush in his growling valedictory speech at the closing banquet.

The next day, however, Robertson found his voice on CBS's "Face the Nation," and it sounded much like Buchanan's. Apparently, because Bush had "blown a major lead" in the presidential race, Robertson no longer felt the Texas governor was entitled to a free pass from appeasing his friends on the right.

"They figure they've got the conservative base locked up and they don't have to worry about it," Robertson said, admonishing Bush to come out of the ideological closet. "It's a dangerous strategy to ignore your base, especially to play like something you're not." Playing ideological possum is something Robertson knows plenty about.

Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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