Dobson's Choice

Politics and policy.
May 9 1998 3:30 AM

Dobson's Choice

Religious right leader James Dobson's "my way or the highway" tactics spell trouble for the GOP.

The historian Robert Conquest has two laws of politics, which are recorded in Kingsley Amis' Memoirs. The first is that, "generally speaking, everybody is reactionary on the subjects he knows about." The second is "every organization appears to be headed by secret agents of its opponents."

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Conquest Rule No. 2 applies nicely to the recent activities of Focus on the Family, an organization of the religious right run by the radio evangelist and family counselor James Dobson. Those on the irreligious left describe Dobson as the most powerful leader of Christian conservatives active today. But lately, his behavior seems as if it were scripted by his antagonists, People for the American Way and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

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Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

About two months ago, Dobson began saying in private that the failure of House Republicans to take his family-values agenda seriously might impel him to lead a mass walkout from the party. He delivered that démarche to a meeting of House Republicans in the basement of the Capitol on March 18. Dobson told GOP leaders that they must act on a range of social-conservative issues, such as abortion, gay rights, and school prayer--or else. Unsatisfied with their response, Dobson went public with a series of unusual interviews in the secular media. Dobson's face appeared on the cover of U.S. News & World Report, below a headline that read, in part, "Now, he has decided the Republican Party must convert or be brought down." On Meet the Press, he said that evangelical Christians who put the Republicans in control of Congress in 1994 had been "insulted" and "disrespected" ever since. Asked about the consequences of a walkout, Dobson told Tim Russert, "It would be the Democrats in the White House and the Congress, so that would be unfortunate. But you never take a hill unless you're willing to die on it. And we will die on this hill if necessary."

Republican leaders are furious with Dobson over these comments, and for good reason. By blackmailing them so openly, he is telling them, in effect, to choose their poison. The GOP can either show Dobson the door, or it can try to move his radical agenda, which calls for, among other things, abolition of the Department of Education and a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. If Republicans stiff him, they may lose a crucial component of their narrow majority. If, on the other hand, they "convert," they get to watch moderates and economic conservatives flee in horror. In sending a message that the party can't take its conservative base for granted, Dobson also sends a signal to the electorate as a whole: Republicans are being ordered around by a frightening religious zealot.

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D obson, 62, is less well known than Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson and far more powerful than either of them. Born in Shreveport, La., he is descended from three generations of Nazarene ministers. But Dobson did not become ordained as a minister himself. Instead, he took a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in child developmental psychology. His book Dare to Discipline, published in 1970, turned him into a kind of conservative Dr. Spock, as he has often been described, eventually selling more than 2 million copies. In 1977, Dobson used the book as a platform to found Focus on the Family, a nonprofit organization based in Colorado Springs, Colo. Focus on the Family dispenses family counseling over an 800 number and sponsors Dobson's daily radio broadcast, in which he serves up advice on marriage and child-rearing along with condemnations of "humanism," a philosophy he equates with all forms of social permissiveness. The program, which is heard on 2,000 stations, has helped Dobson develop a mailing list of more than 2 million names.

Over the past decade, he has become more and more explicitly political. In 1988, Dobson set up the Washington-based Family Research Council, headed by his ally Gary Bauer, a former Reagan administration official. Bauer is to Dobson as Ralph Reed until recently was to Pat Robertson. Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council are now technically separate, but they work hand in glove. Both raised a ruckus in 1995 when party chairman Haley Barbour ventured the notion that Republicans could be a "Big Tent" party on abortion. The two threatened to walk out of the Republican National Convention if the GOP modified its uncompromising anti-abortion plank or if Bob Dole picked a pro-choice running mate such as Colin Powell.

This absolutism contrasted with the stance of the rival Christian Coalition. Under Reed's leadership, the Christian Coalition was more politically savvy, more open to compromise with the nonreligious right, and more accepting of the reality that Republican victory was a prerequisite for any kind of conservative change. Reed recognized that his power depended on not demanding constant satisfaction from the party. Thus, in 1996 Reed threw his weight behind Dole early in the primary season and flirted with the idea of accepting modified language on abortion in the GOP platform. For this, Dobson and Bauer denounced him as a power-hungry sellout.

With Reed gone into private political consulting, the Christian Coalition has been eclipsed by Bauer and Dobson. Of late, they have been involving themselves in congressional races, to the chagrin of the national party. Bauer spent $250,000 in support of Tom Bordonaro, a conservative who defeated the Republican National Committee-approved moderate in a special election primary in California. Bordonaro then lost to the Democrat, Lois Capps. Dobson, who has seldom made political endorsements in the past, recently backed ex-Rep. Bob Dornan, the well-known ultracon wacko, against a moderate Republican in an upcoming congressional primary. Party regulars worry that the same thing may happen again--Dornan will win the nomination and lose to the incumbent Democrat, Loretta Sanchez, in November.

Is Dobson a menace to freedom? Liberals try to play it both ways. They love to argue that the religious right controls the Republican Party. But they also maintain that Christian conservatives are extreme and marginal. In fact, Dobson does have power, but it's of a kind that depends on subtlety and patience, qualities he tends to lack. To the extent he can align himself with something resembling majority opinion--on an issue like partial-birth abortion or opposition to the marriage penalty--he may get somewhere. But to push his further agenda, he threatens to do to the GOP what Democratic interest groups did to their party in the 1970s and 1980s--that is, drag it down to principled defeat.

Indeed, in what Dobson is now doing there is an echo of Jesse Jackson's past threats to bolt the Democratic Party if he and his views weren't accorded more "respect." Appeasing Jackson--the Mondale/Dukakis strategy--was far less effective than confronting him--the Clinton strategy. The risk of alienating a voting base is real, but the risk of looking like a prisoner to the ultras is greater. Most people don't want to vote for a party that constantly succumbs to extortion from an extreme faction. You might expect James Dobson, a child psychologist, to understand how this works.