Reprinted from The Washington Times , 5am -- April 17, 1998

Debate on morality roils GOP

By Sean Scully

Talk of "family values" -- once a sure winner for Republicans at the polls -- threatens to be a divisive issue for the party this election.
Conservatives "sense that leadership, on some of these issues, has been tepid," said Randy Tate, executive director of the Christian Coalition. "They're unwilling to put forward an aggressive agenda."
     But Republicans who avoid talking about social issues, Mr. Tate added, "do so at their own peril."
     Social and religious conservatives across the country are worried that the GOP leaders have backed away from key issues --abortion, religious freedom and school choice, among others -- in an effort to appeal to centrist voters of both parties. As a result, conservatives are fielding their own candidates in many races, sometimes in direct opposition to the "mainstream" candidate favored by the leadership.
     Not to be left out, Democrats are hoping to avoid their defensive stance of years past on social issues, piggybacking on the good economy to push the idea of "economic family values."
     "I think it's a mistake to define or talk about family values just as abortion and ethics in government," said former Indiana state legislator Baron Hill, a financial consultant and one of three Democrats running in the rural southeastern 9th District.
     "The 'family values' issue is education -- the quality of education, holding teachers and principals and schools accountable," said Roy Behr, campaign spokesman for Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, who is running for re-election. "That's the single most important 'family value' issue in the state."
     The split between economic conservatives and social conservatives inside the Republican Party has a long history, but it is being fought with particular vigor this year.
     GOP leaders should "drive the liberals out" of the party entirely, argued Randall Terry, founder of the militant pro-life group Operation Rescue and a congressional candidate in New York's 26th District.
     "What they want to do is keep the conservatives in line but use the moderates and liberals to control the direction of the party," said Mr. Terry, one of three Republicans in the primary.
     Mr. Terry is one of five religious conservatives running on an informal slate of congressional candidates. Two of the five are challenging established GOP veterans in the primary: Joe McMonagle is taking on two-term Rep. Jon D. Fox in Pennsylvania's 13th District, and Jim Pierce is challenging six-term Rep. Amo Houghton in New York's 31st District.
     Republican leaders in Washington grudgingly acknowledge Mr. Terry's candidacy, but some deny even being aware of Mr. McMonagle and Mr. Pierce. Mr. Terry says he hopes to recruit more candidates for similar slates nationwide in future elections.
     James C. Dobson, a leading figure in the Christian conservative movement through his Focus on the Family organization, has threatened an open break with the Republican leaders "who have shamefully refused to address the moral issues on which they campaigned."
     "To stay the course ... is to support those who have ridden to power on a wave of hypocrisy," Mr. Dobson wrote to members of Congress after meeting with House leaders in March.
     Already, the conservative disaffection has shown up in early races and primaries, with the dividing line coming on the most emotional of the conservative "family values" issues: abortion.
     In California, pro-life state legislator Tom Bordonaro upset pro-choice businessman Brooks Firestone in the GOP primary, only to lose to Democrat Lois Capps in a March special election.
     In Illinois, conservative state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald upset state Comptroller Loleta Didrickson in last month's primary to challenge Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, Illinois Democrat.
     And pro-life conservatives in Palm Springs debated until the last possible moment whether to run a primary rival to Mary Bono. She was clearly the party leadership's choice to replace her husband, Rep. Sonny Bono, California Republican, who died in a skiing accident in January.
     Although Mrs. Bono enjoyed clear support from House leaders, pro-life activists in the district balked, saying Mrs. Bono is not sufficiently clear in her opposition to abortion.
     Earlier this year, members of the Republican National Committee engaged in a bruising brawl over whether to deny party money to Republican candidates who do not explicitly favor a ban on partial-birth abortions.
     "If this is a party that can't even deny funding to candidates who favor murder, we're talking about a party that has lost its soul," Mr. Terry said.
     "This is a party in disarray," House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, said without a trace of regret at a press conference earlier this month.
     Republican leaders dismiss talk of a deep internal divide.
     Rep. John Linder, Georgia Republican and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, blamed Democrats for stirring up talk of a GOP split.
     "In the absence of their ability to recruit candidates, they have to talk about such distractions," Mr. Linder said testily.
     Two months before Mr. Dobson complained about the GOP leadership, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, warned colleagues that the party needed to fortify its position on moral issues.
     "There is a strong desire across America for a resurgence of basic morality and a clearer focus on the truly important things in life," Mr. Armey said in a 10-page memo to fellow Republicans in January.
     Mr. Armey said the party needs to continue to talk about traditional moral issues while making a moral case for issues usually seen as economic.
     Candidates seem to be taking his message to heart.
     "There is an economic side of family values," said Kentucky state Sen. Gex "Jay" Williams, one of three Republicans running in that state's 4th District, the northeastern corner of the state, citing heavy tax burdens that all but force both parents in a family to work.
     Brent Winters, the Republican nominee in Illinois' 19th District --a sprawling rural district in the southeast -- said issues like school choice and local control of education are closely related to "family values."
     "That decision should be left to the family rather than the political government," said Mr. Winters, a farmer and lawyer.
     Democrats, by contrast, need no prompting to sound the economic "family values" theme, which is emerging as a key to the party strategy for the fall campaign. Following a game plan that helped President Clinton in his 1996 re-election bid, Democrats play down the social conservative issues, such as abortion, arguing that pocketbook issues are key to family stability.
     Republicans have "failed to take up the kitchen-table, everyday problems that we have been trying to raise and will continue to try to raise in this Congress," Mr. Gephardt said at a press conference earlier this month. "No managed care reform, no bills to improve our public education and schools, no minimum wage increase, and no extension of the Medicare program."
     "These are the issues that people in the country, sitting around kitchen tables, talk about," he said, "but I don't see any of that happening."
     But there's no certainty that economic issues will move voters. Off-year elections tend to be quiet, with no presidential campaigns to energize voters. The strong economy may mean voters are satisfied and even less likely to make it to the polls.
     Republican strategists say that leaves the GOP with an advantage. With the mass of voters likely to stay home, elections can be decided by the more committed activists --pro-life groups, term-limit supporters and other interest groups traditionally identified as Republicans.
     "We do have to do some things right still," concedes a senior Republican official. "We need to set a continued moral tone and demonstrate that through some vessel of legislation" before Congress adjourns in the fall.
     Republicans on Capitol Hill say they expect to take up a constitutional amendment to amplify the existing protections on religious expression and may vote once more on a partial-birth abortion ban, which President Clinton has vetoed in the past.
     Mr. Tate and other conservative leaders say those votes may soothe the split between the social conservatives and party leaders.
     But Phyllis Schlafly, president of the conservative Eagle Forum, said it may be too late for the Republicans. She said conservatives expected stronger results from the 1994 "Republican Revolution" and are deeply embittered.
     "A lot of people who care about family values are disaffected from the process right now. ... People who are for family values are the ones who will stay home," she said.
     A great unknown for strategists of both parties is the effect of the scandals surrounding President Clinton. The ongoing flood of sex-and-lies allegations could motivate voters to turn out to make a statement.
     "Elected officials are role models," the Christian Coalition's Mr. Tate said. "They are put in a position to set a moral standard. ... There may be a moral backlash at the polls on this issue."
     "As long as we're prudent and professional in dealing with that, I don't see a downside for us," one Republican strategist said.
     Or maybe the voters just don't care.
     "I can tell, based upon what people have said to me, that they think this is a whole lot of nonsense," said Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey, New York Democrat. "This has nothing to do with governing."
     Generally speaking, candidates of both parties are reluctant to talk about Mr. Clinton's ethical woes.
     Republicans fear taking on a president who remains popular in polls despite his battered personal image. Democrats have been slow to embrace the president for fear the accusations against him might prove true.
     "It could get more serious. This may be more serious than I realize now," said Illinois state Rep. David Phelps, the Democratic candidate in the 19th District, an open seat this fall. "I've got to run on what David Phelps believes. ... I have my own ideas and makeup."
     The issue has emerged in only a handful of races. Republicans challenging Mrs. Boxer and Mrs. Moseley-Braun have called on the women to take as strong a stand against Mr. Clinton as they did in 1991 and 1992 against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, who was accused of sexually harassing former employee Anita Hill.
     The Republicans "have looked at all the issues that people care about and said, 'Hey, we're on the wrong side of the issue. We'd better come up with something else to talk about,'" Mr. Behr said, dismissing Mrs. Boxer's critics.
     In Kentucky's 6th District, in the center of the state, Democratic prosecutor Bobby Russell tried to break out of a crowded primary field by airing ads attacking Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, who is investigating a number of Clinton administration scandals, including allegations of sexual impropriety.
     But candidates of both parties say that talking about Mr. Starr's investigation is ultimately a superficial strategy, doing little to distinguish a candidate from his opponents.
     The ad shows that Mr. Russell "doesn't have a whole lot to talk about," said state Sen. John "Eck" Rose, one of Mr. Russell's Democratic opponents.
     Mr. Russell's campaign insists, however, that the ad isn't so much a comment on Mr. Starr as a comment on Mr. Russell. It gives Mr. Russell a forum to tell voters about his own background as a prosecutor and to show that he is willing to speak out on controversial issues, a campaign spokesman said.
     Meanwhile, Tom Roberg, a Republican running in North Carolina's 4th District, bordering Raleigh, is running radio ads that mention the scandal indirectly.
     "Do you remember an America where character, ethics and honesty were the rule and not the exception?" asks Mr. Roberg, a longtime local party official trying to unseat Rep. David E. Price, North Carolina Democrat, in the ad.
     The spot does not mention Mr. Clinton, but the scandal provides a forum to talk about morality and ethics in general, Mr. Roberg said.
     "It certainly has hurt the image of very many honest politicians on both sides of the aisle," he said. "The whole idea that 'everyone does it' is something I totally reject."
     Even if Mr. Clinton's name doesn't come up in the campaign, the scandal will make voters look more closely at candidates, said Michael Bailey, a Republican running in Indiana's 9th District. The scandal "begs the question" of personal ethics for every candidate.
     "People clearly understand now that morality matters," he said. "We have been embarrassed around the world, our reputation is tarnished. [Voters] are just embarrassed."

  • Congressional reporter Sean Scully will be tracking social issues on the campaign trail through the 1998 election cycle. His e-mail address is

Copyright 1998 News World Communications, Inc.

Reprinted with permission of
The Washington Times.

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