WASHINGTON -- The Democratic Party suffered serious defections in both the 1984 and 1988 presidential elections because of the perception that Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis had made too many concessions to Jesse Jackson.
The perception wasn't accurate but that was beside the point. The operative thing was that many middle-class white voters -- the "Reagan Democrats" -- believed the black civil rights leader enjoyed too much influence in their party.
These days, the Republican Party is in precisely the same position in dealing with leaders of the religious right. The meeting of House Republican leaders and officials of Christian fundamentalist groups the other day projected an image of a party giving a veto power to a militant constituency.
The potential for defections already has been demonstrated. In the 1996 election in particular, many suburban Republicans voted for President Clinton because they were not comfortable with the "family values" agenda of the religious right.
The problem is a difficult one for Republicans because the cultural conservatives make up a significant and heretofore loyal voting bloc for them just as black voters were for the Democrats in those elections in 1984 and 1988.
In one sense, the pressure on the Republicans is even greater. The conservative organizations are saying in so many words that unless the Republican Party puts their issues at the head of its agenda, they will defect. If that threat were fulfilled later this year, the Republicans might be in danger of losing the 11 seats jTC that would return control of the House to the Democrats.
The House leaders appeared to roll over on cue after meeting with leaders of such groups as the Christian Coalition, the National Right to Life Committee, the Family Research Council and the Home School Legal Defense Association. They created a new task force known as the "Values Action Team" specifically charged with working with the conservative groups on several items on their agenda before the fall campaign begins in earnest.
Thus, for example, the Republicans are committed to new efforts to outlaw what they call "partial-birth" abortions, to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts and to force a vote on a constitutional amendment to allow prayer in the public schools.
Whether these efforts will meet the demand is an open question. James Dobson, the influential conservative broadcaster whose "Focus on the Family" radio program attracts 5 million listeners, said after the meeting that "it's easy to talk about things. It is tougher to get action in Congress and certainly in the Senate."
But the threat goes beyond the midterm congressional elections. The conservative leaders also are saying in so many words that they are unwilling to accept a presidential nominee in 2000 who does not share their views on such fundamental issues as abortion rights and homosexual rights. That is a view that puts them directly at odds with many mainstream conservative Republicans, including most of the governors of the largest states and several leading possibilities for the presidential nomination.
In some respects, the pressure these religious fundamentalists bring to bear on the Republicans is even more intense than that the Democrats experienced from Jesse Jackson in the past.
For one thing, there is an element of morality not usually a part of political discussion in this country. The leaders of the religious right take the view that supporting abortion rights is equivalent to supporting murder and thus is immoral. Similarly, the attack on the National Endowment for the Arts is not simply a complaint about how federal money is spent but instead an assault on art the conservatives consider pornography.
A second difference is the regional nature of the pressure exerted on the Republicans. Although they have followers all over the country, most of these fundamentalists groups are strongest in the South and Far West. It is no accident that Mr. Clinton swept the Northeast in the 1996 election. There is a world of difference between Republicans who live in the suburbs of New York or Philadelphia and those who live in small towns in the Cotton South.
The dilemma for the Republicans is obvious. They need to preserve the base they have developed in the South over the past decade. But they cannot win the presidency if they forfeit the entire Northeast. In short, they have a serious problem with the religious right.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 5/13/98