Just not right (enough)

Word from a weekend meeting of the conservative Council for National Policy, or CNP, in Salt Lake City is that a number of conservative religious  leaders are seeking a third-party or Independent presidential alternative in case former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani wins the GOP nomination.

The CNP is composed mainly but certainly not exclusively of what the mainstream media likes to refer to as “social” or “religious” conservative leaders, many of whom strongly supported President Bush but have been less than excited by the potential 2008 Republican nominees.

Their nervousness about Giuliani and the rest of the GOP field is important in that it reflects murmurings within the GOP base that extend far beyond the “religious” portion of the coalition the eventual nominee is going to have to count on in a race against Hillary Clinton and her resurgent Democrats. Religious conservatives are perhaps more outraged by the possibility of a Giuliani candidacy than the conservative mainstream because they perceived George W. Bush as more their man than did the others. Goldwater and Reagan conservatives have always, for example, harbored mixed feelings about the Bush presidency on issues like spending and his adoption of the Clinton penchant for “nation-building,” but social and religious conservatives have been more satisfied with the president’s rhetorical and substantive support of issues dear to their hearts.

Whether James Dobson and other religious conservatives actually break with the GOP next fall in the face of a potential Clinton victory will depend on a number of factors. The possibility of such a break would certainly increase if Giuliani is actually nominated by the party when its delegates gather in Minneapolis, but that is far from certain, even given his current standing in the polls.

It is just as likely that the party will nominate someone like Fred Thompson or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Religious conservative leaders have some problems with either of these two, but taking their forces off the political battlefield in a contest pitting either against Mrs. Clinton would be far more difficult.

Conservative true believers, like their liberal counterparts, periodically contemplate the need to go their separate ways. My old friend Bill Rusher, the retired publisher of National Review, urged conservatives in the ’70s to abandon the Republican Party, saying that, given its domination by establishmentarians, it was simply impossible to contemplate it giving its presidential nomination to someone “like, say, Ronald Reagan.” Fortunately, conservatives resisted Rusher’s advice, went into the political trenches, and within a very few years nominated and elected the man who brought the Soviet Empire to its knees.

In recent years, Independent candidates have accomplished only one thing: They have helped ensure the election of the candidate with whom they agree least. Thus, Ross Perot elected Bill Clinton and Ralph Nader made the difference for George W. Bush. If the folks attending the CNP meeting really want to guarantee Hillary Clinton four years in the White House, all they have to do is come up with someone who can peel 5 or 6 percent of the vote away from the eventual GOP nominee.

They aren’t likely to actually want to do this, and none of them are fools. They also know that when push comes to shove they can’t “lead” their followers off the battlefield — and probably won’t try to do so, because they won’t have to do anything quite so drastic. If they and other conservatives at the grass roots are convinced they don’t have a horse in the finals, enough of them could go fishing on Election Day to sink the nominee.

Preventing that eventuality is the job of the party and its candidates. It’s their job to knit together the constituent parts of the GOP base going into the next election. If they do their job, threats such as those they’re hearing today will vanish. What they’d better bear in mind, however, is that it is possible to so infuriate parts of one’s base that voters bolt or stay home regardless of the consequences.

In 1972, Congressman John Ashbrook, one of the greatest conservative leaders of his day, mounted a quixotic and mostly forgotten primary campaign against Richard Nixon. He knew he couldn’t win, but when asked by a conservative activist why he was doing it anyway, said simply, “because one day we’re going to want to say we weren’t a part of this.”

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.