When parties fall out of power, they tend to go through a battle between Puritans and Big Tenters. Inevitably, when Puritans control the debate, they tend to ensure a longer term in the wilderness, and when they don't, they threaten to leave. Perhaps the developments in Salt Lake City, at a meeting of the Council for National Policy, indicates that the Republican center-right has begun to take the lead in GOP politics:
Alarmed at the chance that the Republican party might pick Rudolph Giuliani as its presidential nominee despite his support for abortion rights, a coalition of influential Christian conservatives is threatening to back a third-party candidate in an attempt to stop him.
The group making the threat, which came together Saturday in Salt Lake City during a break-away gathering during a meeting of the secretive Council for National Policy, includes Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who is perhaps the most influential of the group, as well as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, the direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie and dozens of other politically-oriented conservative Christians, participants said. Almost everyone present expressed support for a written resolution that “if the Republican Party nominates a pro-abortion candidate we will consider running a third party candidate.”
The participants spoke on condition of anonymity because the both the Council for National Policy and the smaller meeting were secret, but they said members of the intend to publicize its resolution. These participants said the group chose the qualified term “consider” because they have not yet identified an alternative third party candidate, but the group was largely united in its plans to bolt the party if Mr. Giuliani became the candidate.
A revolt of Christian conservative leaders could be a significant setback to the Giuliani campaign because white evangelical Protestants make up a major portion of Republican primary voters. But the threat is risky for the credibility of the Christian conservative movement as well. Some of its usual grass-roots supporters could still choose to support even a pro-choice Republican like Mr. Giuliani, either because they dislike the Democratic nominee even more or because they are worried about war, terrorism and other issues.
The problem with the Christian Right is that they have consistently made these threats in the past and have always dropped the idea when they started counting numbers. The groups have significant influence in the Republican Party because of their ability to organize and contribute, but their influence outstrips their actual size. Forming a third party would set them back at least a generation, and it would push Republican politics away from their agenda and towards the center, just when Democrats appear poised to abandon it.
The immediate effect, however, would probably be the election of Hillary Clinton to the White House. Hillary has tremendous negatives, higher than anyone seeking a first-term Presidency in recent memory. At the moment, Rasmussen has her in the best position she's had -- and that's an anemic +6, with a whopping 46% negative. People don't get elected with those kinds of negatives in a two-party general election ... unless someone runs as a third-party candidate that drains support from the other option. It's how Bill Clinton won in 1992, when fiscal conservatives abandoned George H. W. Bush for Ross Perot because of Bush's tax increase in 1990.
If the Christian Right did the same by organizing a third party, they may as well write themselves off as a significant force in American politics. They have plenty of candidates to support in the primaries, including Mike Huckabee, who matches up well with their platform. If they can't get Huckabee nominated within the system, then the faction should acknowledge that the party made a different choice and support the end result of the primary process. If they cannot do that, no one in Republican politics will ever trust them, and their influence will wane substantially.
These leaders may even damage their influence within their own faction. Right now, Giuliani receives a significant amount of support from the very Evangelicals for whom James Dobson and Tony Perkins speak. If they call for the formation of a third party to oppose Giuliani's nomination and these voters do not follow them, they will find themselves very lonely in political circles, and the Council for National Policy along with them. Republicans have already figured out that Presidents can't do much about abortion except appoint strict-constructionist judges, which Rudy has pledged to do already, and that other issues hold more significance in this election -- like war, taxes, spending, and beating Hillary Clinton.
Republicans don't need petulance from its internal factions. Primaries exist for these groups to make their best case to the voters, and the voters decide which candidate fits their agendas. Threatening to take one's ball and go home doesn't build respect or confidence in any faction, and it's getting old from this particular one, even among its own members. The Christian Right needs to find a primary candidate to endorse and make its best case -- and then make a mature and intelligent decision about the general election if they lose the primaries.