It’s 1996 All Over Again

Over the weekend, the New York Times published two pieces – one by David Kirkpatrick, the other by Frank Rich – suggesting that the Religious Right’s long political relationship with the Republican Party is unraveling and that the movement is facing the possibility of complete destruction heading into the 2008 election.  

If that prediction sounds familiar, it is probably because the media wrote wove exactly the same narrative a little over a decade ago heading into the 1996 election.  

Back in 1995, Ralph Reed graced the cover of Time Magazine where he was declared “The Right Hand of God” for his role in helping Republican capture control of Congress the previous year from his position as the head of the Christian Coalition.   

The Religious Right, it seemed at the time, were the new political powerbrokers in Washington, DC; a movement that had fundamentally altered the balance of power and was set to dominate the scene for the foreseeable future. 

But then, just one year later, the press was reporting that they were in complete disarray and on the verge of imploding.   

Just a sampling of articles from that period demonstrate how little has changed since then, with GOP candidates pandering to James Dobson and the Right split over which candidate, if any, to back:   

GOP Candidates Make Focus On Family A Campaign Stop

18 February 1996

The Associated Press Political Service

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) – Focus on the Family has become a magnet for GOP presidential contenders who want to tap into the country’s rich vein of conservative Christian voters, according to a news report.

Republican candidates past and present, including Lamar Alexander, Bob Dole, Patrick Buchanan, Phil Gramm and Alan Keyes, all have met privately on several occasions with Focus founder James Dobson.

Dobson, a psychologist and author, reaches millions of listeners every week through his radio broadcasts on 2,302 U.S. stations. He also has an array of magazines that reach nearly 3 million homes a month.

His message centers on God and keeping families strong. He is vehemently against abortion and homosexuality. Observers say he has quietly but forcefully entered the nation’s most riveting debates and has gained a reputation as a stealth opinion maker.

G.O.P. Candidates Divide Religious Right


19 January 1996

The New York Times

With only three weeks to go before the first votes are cast in the 1996 Presidential caucuses and primaries, religious conservatives are a political force fractured, their allegiances divided among several Republican candidates.

But the fragmentation appears to be less a sign of political weakness than an indication of how far Christian conservatives have progressed within the Republican Party. An insurgent force in the 1980’s, they have become a core element of the Republican establishment, increasingly rich in grass-roots organizers, fund-raisers and state party officials.

Never before have so many Republican Presidential candidates contended so avidly for the votes of religious conservatives, embracing the social stands the group favors.

”This is the first time in the religious conservative movement since the 1970’s that they have not had a single horse to saddle in the Republican Presidential process,” said Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition.

But Mr. Reed, who has not endorsed a candidate, said he saw no cause for alarm in this. While religious conservatives ”have spread themselves throughout the field,” he said, ”the entire field has moved to them, not the other way around.”

Perceived as a powerful voting bloc, religious conservatives are dividing more on issues of personality and a candidate’s likelihood to succeed than on ideology.

And just as is happening today, James Dobson was calling front-running Republican candidates unacceptable and threatening to sit out the election or cast third-party votes:

Pro-family leader: Abortion missteps kill Dole campaign

Ralph Z. Hallow


13 June 1996

James Dobson, the leader of a major pro-family organization, yesterday accused Bob Dole of going out of his way to “insult” his social conservative base by courting pro-choice voters and all but declared Mr. Dole’s presidential candidacy over before he is even formally nominated.

“The former senator’s base is conservative evangelicals and Catholics, and while he needs additional votes to win the election, he can’t afford to alienate those most ardent supporters. He has just done that,” said Mr. Dobson, who heads Colorado-based Focus on the Family.

Mr. Dobson had an hour-long meeting Monday with Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, to unite their grass-roots movements against Mr. Dole’s efforts to “marginalize” social conservatives. Afterward, a Christian Coalition source said the 1.7-million-member group may “sit out” the election rather than support Mr. Dole.

Of course, Bob Dole ended up losing to President Clinton in 1996, but it certainly didn’t spell the end of the Religious Right. In fact, if anything, the loss somewhat strengthened the Right’s position within the GOP and helped to unify the movement heading into the next election in 2000, which seemed to work out pretty well for them :   

An uncivil war. (Republican Party)

Howard Fineman

1260 words


18 November 1996

While the moderates hunt for the “acceptable,” the religious right yearns for the “pure.” Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council says religious conservatives may now cow lesce around a figure who has always been “one of our own,” unlike Dole. Ralph Reed says that Bauer might be right. “It might not be a bad idea to explicitly rally our people behind one candidate who fully shares our views,” he says … But the hottest “new” name is an old one: George Bush. Not the former president, but his son the governor of Texas. He is popular with religious conservatives and countryclub moderates a like, a happy synthesis his father never quite mastered.