When James Dobson threatened in February to bolt the Republican Party, many observers wondered whether he was bluffing. But a skirmish last month between the Focus on the Family president and two powerful congressional leaders proves that, even though there's now no wedge between them, Mr. Dobson really will dare to discipline the party and even Christian lawmakers he loves as brothers.
When Mr. Dobson, who stresses his political activity is as a private citizen and not as president of Focus, first dropped his bombshell at a conservative gathering in Phoenix (WORLD, Feb. 28), he immediately got the attention of the GOP. House Speaker Newt Gingrich quickly requested that Mr. Dobson detail his dissatisfaction with the party so House leaders would be better able to address his concerns. Frustrated that he had already outlined his priorities to the Speaker-to no avail-Mr. Dobson nevertheless repeated himself in a lengthy fax that covered a wide range of social and economic issues.
On March 19 Mr. Dobson scheduled meetings with the editorial boards of both The Washington Post and The New York Times "to offer sharp criticism of Republican leaders who have shamefully refused to address the moral issues on which they campaigned." But first he huddled with 25 conservative lawmakers who complained that Mr. Dobson's comments undermined their legislative efforts and endangered their reelection campaigns. Not wanting to harm congressional conservatives, whom he called "the best friends of Christian people generally," Mr. Dobson cancelled his media appointments at the last minute.
Within 24 hours he regretted that move. Instead of meeting with the Post and the Times, he met the next day with House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, both Texas Republicans and both professing Christians. Although somewhat pleased by Mr. Armey's reassurances, Mr. Dobson was infuriated with Mr. DeLay, whom he described as "argumentative, defensive, and accusatory." He was also angered when Mr. DeLay criticized Gary Bauer, a close Dobson ally, for causing a bruising primary fight in California that left the eventual nominee, Tom Bordonaro, unable to defeat the Democrats' pro-abortion candidate in the general election.
"I left Mr. Armey's office wishing I had gone through with the planned press conferences," he concluded in an open letter to his friends in Congress. "There is still time to do that." He went on to say that he was "more determined than ever" to take on the Republican leadership who had deserted the conservative agenda. "I'm sure some of you would prefer to maintain the status quo and hope for gradual change in congressional leadership, especially since your own seats may be jeopardized by voter rebellion," he wrote. "To stay the course, however, is to support those who have ridden to power on a wave of hypocrisy-promising that which they had no intention of delivering."
A House leadership source said that charge was especially hurtful to Mr. Armey, whose conversion several years ago was chronicled in WORLD. It's one thing to disagree with political positions, the source said, but quite another "to call someone a Christian brother and pray with him, then accuse him of being a liar and a hypocrite." Mr. DeLay was also stung by Mr. Dobson's rebuke. He told reporters that the Dobson letter "deeply hurt my feelings.... Dr. Dobson, quite frankly, is one of the principal people that brought me back to Christ when I first came to Congress, because I saw his video Where's Daddy? and it convicted me because my priorities were with my job and not my family, and it turned me around."
By last week, Mr. Dobson said he had patched up relations with the two Texas Republicans. "People interpret things very differently," he told WORLD, referring to the closed-door meeting that had left hurt feelings all around. "That's why witnesses to car accidents often give directly contradictory evidence." In this case, it appears that a head-on collision was narrowly avoided. Mr. Dobson stressed to WORLD that the hypocrisy comment was directed not at Dick Armey, but at Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott, whom he specifically singled out and charged with reneging on earlier promises to push an aggressively pro-family agenda. "I'm doing them a favor and they don't know it," Mr. Dobson said. "They are going to lose if they don't pay attention to their base."
As for Mr. DeLay: "Tom and I have talked this through," Mr. Dobson said, declining to detail the specific offenses. "The last thing I want to do is resurrect [the conflict] ... by saying some harsh stuff." Mr. Dobson said he had tried unsuccessfully to reach the congressman earlier, before their disagreement found its way into the mainstream press. By the time the two talked by telephone last week-they actually had two separate phone conversations-Mr. Dobson said there was "not any fire left in either of us." Mr. Dobson said he told Rep. DeLay, "You're my Christian brother and I love you.... He felt the same way."
A DeLay spokesman said there were no lingering hard feelings. He characterized the whole episode as "basically a misunderstanding."
Still the question remains: Has the GOP reached a new understanding with Mr. Dobson that will prevent such misunderstandings in the future? The entire incident shows just how difficult it can be for lawmakers to satisfy activist leaders. Mr. DeLay, for instance, thought he should have received conservative points for engineering a tricky parliamentary maneuver that attached a tough anti-abortion provision to a State Department reorganization bill. But Mr. Dobson was unenthusiastic because the bill also authorized payment of "back dues" by the United States to the UN-an issue that is anathema among most conservatives.
At the end of the day, GOP leaders probably won't be graded on individual votes or the number of bills they actually pass. The battle, it seems, is being waged for willing hearts rather than successful votes. His criticism, Mr. Dobson stressed, is not with the failure to achieve pro-life, pro-family policy objectives, "it's with the failure to try." Mr. Dobson and others like him are simply tired of being taken for granted by the politicians they put in office. They're tired of taking the blame when liberal Republicans sit on their hands rather than vote for a conservative like Mr. Bordonaro. They're tired of fighting for a pro-life platform that the party won't enforce on its own candidates. And they're tired of acting grateful whenever the party sees fit to interrupt its endless economic debate for the occasional token vote on social policy.
A leading congressional pro-life staffer tried to keep last week's flap in perspective: "Let's remember that this is a dispute between friends." But as Republicans eye their razor-thin majority in the House, such disputes make them distinctly nervous. The battles do the same to Mr. Dobson, who took pains to stress his concern for some Republican lawmakers unfairly "getting hit by the ricochet."
"Man, I don't want to hurt them in any way."