Elephant Wars

The Christian Right Flexes Its Muscle at the Republican Convention


The 2002 Texas Republican Party platform depicts a twilight looking-glass world. It’s a place beset by enemies, where the purity of the culture, under constant siege, must be protected from threats both internal and external. Congress is urged “to deploy our military forces to secure our international borders.” Immigration must be severely restricted.

If these safeguards fail, the contagion of the foreign horde must be controlled and quarantined. The platform calls for “deportation of aliens if they do not carry the required ID.” Illegal immigrants should not be granted drivers’ licenses. Voter registration is to be made more difficult. “American English” is the official language of the state and “the Party supports the termination of bilingual education programs in Texas.”

A plank entitled “equality for all citizens” urges the repeal of hate crimes legislation. Another states: “We oppose any criminal or civil penalties against those who oppose homosexuality out of faith, conviction, or belief in traditional values.” Since the Bible is the Truth, teachers should have the right to instruct their public school students in “creation science.” And those women who choose to terminate their pregnancies should be charged criminally. Lest anyone forget, “America is a Christian nation.”

Workers are on their own in this mean-spirited netherworld: “The Party believes the Minimum Wage Law should be repealed.” All efforts to extend workers’ compensation laws are to be stopped. And Texas’ anti-union Right-to-Work statutes should be enshrined in the state constitution.

The government is not to be trusted either. That is, most of the time. Although, “the greatest threat to individual liberties is government control,” the Party “support[s] reasonable use of racial profiling by law enforcement.” The platform calls for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education, the Surgeon General, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Labor, and the Internal Revenue Service, along with most taxes. Ominously, the conspiracy runs deeper than just the U.S. government. “The Party urges Congress to evict the United Nations from the United States and eliminate any further participation.” The platform demands the return of the Panama Canal, too.

Obviously, this Republican platform won’t find a welcome from the majority of Texas’ burgeoning Hispanic population. It is these immigrants and their children who will determine Texas’ political destiny. For that matter, the austere fundamentalism represented in the platform is probably far outside any definition of the mainstream, even for Texas. And squeezing out the mainstream is not the way to win elections. So not surprisingly, shortly after the delegates heartily approved the platform at the Republican convention in Dallas on June 7-8, the Party leadership and its candidates began to distance themselves from the document, albeit gingerly. Their message: The platform doesn’t matter.

Few were more tortured than state chairman Susan Weddington, herself a Christian conservative. She offered a half-hearted diplomatic defense. “The platform is a tool, but not the only tool,” she said during the convention. “It’s is a snapshot of the party.”

Rita Davis of San Antonio is one of several leaders of a vocal group of radical Christian Republicans who are tired of what they describe as a disconnect between what’s in the platform and what their elected officials are saying and doing. For years they have tried to pass a rule that would force candidates to declare how they stand on each and every plank of the platform. During a decade of conventions they have been thwarted. This time their impotence flared into anger at Weddington and the hierarchy of the Party.

“We’ve been working on it ever since we took over the party,” Davis said on the first day of the convention, as she handed flyers to each delegate walking through a security door to receive credentials. The pamphlets pushed approval of Rule 43, which she hoped would stop RINOs, Republicans In Name Only, by forcing them to pledge allegiance to the platform. “This is a deliberative body. It’s not run by the hierarchy. This is grassroots and we want our voices heard,” she insisted.

As a sideline to their struggle to make the platform relevant, they also tried to pass rules squarely aimed at punishing Weddington, including placing term limits on the state chairmanship and stripping her of the power to appoint committee chairs. Both failed.

For Davis and her mentor, a San Antonio furniture dealer named Robert X. Johnson, the rule change has one particular RINO in mind: San Antonio state Senator Jeff Wentworth, a moderate Republican, who, among his other heresies, is pro-choice. As a nod to the importance Wentworth’s downfall carries for the grassroots, and a sign of her own tenuous position, chairman Weddington took the unprecedented step last March of choosing sides–campaigning against Wentworth, an incumbent, in the Republican primary. Wentworth won anyway, in no small part because a hate-filled mailing by a radical right political action committee called FreePAC backfired.

“We come here every two years and then Jeff Wentworth stomps on [the platform] and says it doesn’t mean anything,” Davis groused. “They should be accountable to the core principles.”

The consequences of ignoring the anti-RINOs could be fatal to the party, Davis and her compatriots warn. “Look at the turnout of the convention, in the caucuses: It may be at an all time low,” noted Nathan Zook, a self-described “rules nerd” and member of the Christian Right. And indeed the vast convention hall was filled with empty seats. While party leaders predicted 15,000 delegates and alternates, the turnout was more on the order of 8,000. “It is getting harder and harder to get the grassroots to come out.”

Down the street from the Dallas convention center, Zook knew, the Libertarian Party of Texas was meeting in a small hotel. Many of those Libertarians had once been Republicans, but, unable to make their mark on the Party, they left. “The fact of the matter is that Libertarians cost us the state senate out west,” Zook continued. “If the party is serious about what it stands for, we wouldn’t have a Libertarian party.”

On the lapel of his blazer, Zook proudly wore a sticker that read, “I’m a Ron Paul Republican.” By the end of the convention, it seemed like the majority of delegates sported the sticker advertising the U.S. Congressman, who used to be a Libertarian and frequently criticizes fellow Republicans. “Ron Paul is much more the face of the Christian Right than Jerry Falwell,” said Zook, who believes the Party’s platform isn’t as strong as it should be.

On the convention floor, Jim Bowie, a black, 34-year Republican from Houston, remembered when there used to be conservative and liberal Republicans. He believes the gulf between the religious right grassroots and the elected officials, wide already, will continue to grow. “There are still a group of people that want to be isolationists,” he said, but he wasn’t particularly worried by the battle being waged over Rule 43. “No one pays any attention to the rules.”

Bowie doesn’t see the Party doing enough to try and recruit people like him. As usual, the complexion among both delegates and those on stage was overwhelmingly white, and attempts at wooing minorities often seemed comically inept. A media gathering to meet minority delegates was abruptly canceled as was a “Diversity Conference.” Weddington, in a bid to paint the opposition as racist and paternalistic, exclaimed from the stage: “Forty years ago, Democrats stood in the schoolhouse door and said you can’t come in, now they are telling ’em you can’t go out [of the party].” But tarnishing Democrats for their Dixiecrat past rang hollow. A primary defeat for a handpicked Republican Hispanic candidate in March didn’t help. In one of the few attempts to speak Spanish from the stage, David Dewhurst, candidate for Lt. Governor, mangled the language with an atrocious accent and linguistic clumsiness, speaking about the need to embrace “Los Hispanicos.”

After Dewhurst and the pretense of inclusion came the red meat the grassroots desperately wanted, when Phil Gramm and Dick Armey said their farewells. Armey defiantly told the crowd that he hoped he hadn’t embarrassed them and they cheered “no.” Armey’s off-color cracks–he once called Representative Barney Frank, “Barney fag,”–clearly lost him no points among delegates here. But it was Gramm who went out with a bang. He gloried that he had been “a storm trooper in the Reagan revolution.” Then he turned his attack on the Democrats, accusing them of dividing Texans based on race for having a Hispanic and a black at the top of the ticket. “That’s their dream and that is their vision,” he snarled, in what could be a preview of race baiting tactics in the months to come.

Exulting in the slogan “we are the onramp to power,” the anti-RINO group managed to get a modified Rule 43 out of the rules committee and onto the convention floor. But debate about it had been raging even before the convention began. Those who opposed it, although apparently outnumbered, fought vigorously. As Houston delegate Bill Borden said, “Rule 43 is the best way for Republicans to shoot ourselves in the one foot we have.” Weddington and vice-chairman David Barton, another Christian conservative, distributed flyers attacking the rule change. Many opponents pointed out that as Republicans struggle to reach out to Texas’ growing minority population, rigid adherence to the platform could be counterproductive.

When Rule 43 at last came before all the delegates, a spirited debate ensued. Under the version presented on the floor, any candidate who failed to declare whether they approved, disapproved, or were undecided about each plank in the platform would be denied state party funds.

Several amendments were offered to strike the rule or defang it, and each time, they were beaten back. Finally the chairman on stage called for a vote. Although the volume of shouts of yeas and nays were remarkably close, it appeared the yeas had carried the day. It was at this point that rules chairman Tina Benkiser declared “the nays have it,” and gaveled the convention to a close before anybody could dispute the ruling.

In the end, the anti-RINOs were remarkably sanguine in light of their previous stridency and the duplicitous way they lost the vote. “They railroaded it, but that’s okay,” said Robert Johnson. “We persuaded a lot of people and exposed the leadership’s dirty tricks.”

Perhaps the activists’ sudden bout of acceptance can be traced to the fact Republicans are at the moment so clearly in the ascendancy. Currently they control both U.S. Senate seats and all 29 statewide offices as well as holding a majority in the state senate. According to Republican consultant Royal Masset, the victories are the fruit of a coalition of Rs and conservative Democrats that was 20 years in the making, and is currently at its peak. This November it’s likely that Republicans will capture the last remaining prize of state politics, a majority in the state house, and possibly, the speakership.

The Christian right enthusiastically endorsed a resolution in the platform calling on Republican representatives to choose a new Speaker in a secret caucus of their own membership, instead of through a bipartisan vote. Tom Craddick from Midland, the longest serving Republican in the state house, desperately wants the job. He is also a favorite of the Christian Right, scoring a 79-percent rating in FreePAC’s ranking of top conservatives in the 2001 Texas Legislature.

“Are you ready for a Republican Speaker supported by Republicans?” Weddington yelled from the stage at one point. “Then on to victory!”

Not so fast. Before the convention, a group of 23 Republican legislators released a letter criticizing the plan to pick a Speaker amongst themselves, who then would be imposed on the Democrats. The legislators tried to distinguish themselves from the “shrill partisanship” of the political parties. They also appealed to their fellow Republicans on the grounds of forward-looking pragmatism. Once the legislature was infected by polarization based on party, it would never be the same, they argued. It also might come back to haunt them.

“If the Democrats were to return to the majority at some point in the near future, as many experts predict, we Republicans would find ourselves shut out of the process,” they wrote. “The choice we make now will shape the future and tenor of our state’s government for generations.”

It remains to be seen whether the same instincts for self-preservation that defeated Rule 43 will win the day in the much more important fight for Speaker. An acknowledgement that Republican hegemony might have an expiration date when Hispanics become a majority, rather than promoting caution, in some quarters seems to fuel a desire to ram as much of the conservative agenda through as possible. Now that they have won, Christian conservatives are anxious to enjoy the spoils of victory, bringing its own complications.

“Once you are rising, everyone loves the momentum and they love the fact they’re winning,” notes Masset. “Once you’ve peaked, you have the normal infighting.”

In the short term Republicans should continue to maintain dominance, asserts Masset. The Democratic hope for a winning political future based on Hispanic votes won’t materialize in this election. Outside of the Valley, Hispanics are still not organized enough in the major cities to make a difference for Democrats for at least a generation, he believes. During that time, Republicans must do a better job of wooing Hispanics and controlling internal bickering. At the 2002 convention, titled “the Year of Emergence,” they showed little aptitude for either.