"Feels like a party, doesn't it?" shouted a Franciscan friar, his sandals mired in mud and the hem of his brown habit just visible beneath a heavy winter coat. It was eye-tearingly cold and the speeches were repetitive, but to the 100,000 or so protesters gathered near the Washington Monument for the 2001 March for Life, the party atmosphere was unmistakable.
After eight long years of being figuratively out in the cold, no one seemed to mind the literal sub-freezing temperatures or the icy wind. Just 48 hours earlier, a friendly new resident had moved into the White House, clearly visible across the Ellipse. To the faithful who had gathered here each year since 1974, the winter of their discontent was officially over.
"Today, you are gathered to remind our country that one of [its] ideals is the infinite value of every life," George W. Bush said to the marchers in a statement read by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.). "You see the weak and defenseless and try to help them. You see the hardship of many young mothers and their unborn children, and you care for them both.... Thank you for your conviction, your idealism, and your courage. God bless you all."
It hardly seemed to matter that Mr. Bush wasn't there in person. No president, after all, has actually marched with the pro-lifers in the 28 years since Roe vs. Wade. The very fact that Mr. Bush voiced his support was a welcome change after eight years in which Bill Clinton went out of his way to frustrate the pro-life cause at every turn. His message heartened marchers concerned about a comment made by Laura Bush that appeared to back the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision.
But things only got better. At 1:20, just as the marchers began to shuffle up Constitution Avenue toward the Supreme Court, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) dropped a bombshell: Mr. Bush had just announced that he was reinstating the so-called Mexico City policy, which restricts U.S. funding of international family planning agencies that promote abortion. Barely 48 hours into his administration, the new president was offering more than symbolism; he was actually saving babies, as Mr. Brownback pointed out to the cheering crowd.
Phyllis Schlafly, the redoubtable founder of the Eagle Forum and the master of ceremonies at the March for Life rally, seemed unimpressed. "This is a first step," she admitted grimly, taking the microphone from Mr. Brownback. But reinstating the Mexico City policy had never been the goal of the march, she said. Only a policy of "no abortions, no exceptions" should be seen as a victory. Then, playing on Mr. Bush's campaign promise to "leave no child behind," she threw down the gauntlet to the new administration: "We won't leave one child behind in surgical waste, mangled and bloody," she vowed.
Coming at the end of a weekend-long lovefest, that comment may have served as the perfect illustration of the emerging, uncertain relationship between Mr. Bush and the cultural conservatives who helped put him in office. They view the new president as a natural-though cautious-ally, and they wonder what role they will play in his administration. Pro-family leaders want to feel like insiders again, to regain what they see as their rightful place at the table. The question is, after eight years in the political hinterlands, do they know how to do anything other than oppose, oppose, oppose?
"I think that the Bush administration came along just in time to save many of these pro-family organizations," said Paul Weyrich, the dean of Washington's cultural conservatives and the man who coined the term "moral majority." "Four more years of a Gore administration-of being on the outside-and I think a lot of them wouldn't have made it."
The biggest near-casualty: Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, once the acknowledged leader of pro-family groups nationwide. In its heyday, the Coalition commanded unprecedented respect-or loathing-among politicians. After helping to draft the Contract with America and reclaim the House of Representatives for the GOP in 1994, the Christian Coalition was named by Fortune magazine as one of the 25 most powerful lobbying organizations in Washington.
But, like so much of the Republican Revolution, the promise of the organization went largely unfulfilled. After the victories of '94, things began to unravel: Top officials left in droves. An IRS action forced a dramatic restructuring. The glossy, bimonthly membership magazine was scrapped. Donations fell precipitously. Vendors sued over unpaid bills. State chapters withered away to nothing. By 1999, the Coalition dropped out of Fortune's "Power 25," and even the conservative National Review titled its profile on the organization "Slouching Toward Irrelevance."
An informal WORLD poll among a dozen conservative staffers on Capitol Hill confirmed that conclusion. Asked to rank the three most effective pro-family lobbying organizations, respondents gave the Christian Coalition only a single, third-place vote. Instead, the five most influential groups, in descending order, were the Family Research Council, the National Right-to-Life Committee, the Heritage Foundation, Concerned Women for America, and the Home School Legal Defense Association.
While those organizations may have gained clout at the expense of some others, Mr. Weyrich says the pro-family movement as a whole merely treaded water for the past eight years. "The sum total of organizational strength is probably about the same, because some have gained while others have lost," he said. "Beginning with the Clinton era, the movement began to level off and has plateaued."
What caused the plateau after 15 years of steady growth? Mr. Weyrich blames the failed revolution of 1994. "Expectations were very high that in fact some things were going to get done, Clinton notwithstanding. But nothing changed. [Pro-family groups] weren't able to point to anything of significance that they accomplished. In several areas, there was actually a retreat in policy.
"People are not stupid out there. They don't give forever, just for the sake of keeping organizations alive. If they don't see that their dollars are doing any good, they're not going to continue to join."
That may be one reason for the palpable sense of relief among pro-family groups as Mr. Bush took the reins of power last week. "We are so thankful that our Father did not give us the president we deserve," said Andrea Sheldon Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition as she opened a $250-per-person soiree at the swank Willard Hotel on the eve of the inauguration. "He gave us a better one, amen?"
Though most of her colleagues in the cultural conservative movement would murmur a heartfelt "amen," the arrival of a friendly administration is not without its own challenges. Like others interviewed by WORLD, Mr. Weyrich is peering at the face of George W. Bush and his administration, and seems willing to trust the man who to conservative movement elders is a new kid on the block: "I came to Washington during Lyndon Johnson's presidency, so I've been able to observe a number of cycles. I have a hunch that this boy may accomplish more than we think. There's just something about him. People underestimate him, but he's more genuinely religious than we've had in a long time."
Some movement conservatives may also consider what's beneficial to their organizations' bottom lines. Pro-family groups may see a decline in donations as positive new political developments make it harder for them to write alarmist fundraising letters, says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. He points out that Mr. Bush's restoration of the Mexico City policy is "huge for the pro-life movement. But of course it means [pro-life organizations] won't get quoted on TV complaining about the previous position, and they can't use it in their fundraising letters."
The trade-off, of course, is that legislative progress usually makes organizations stronger over the long term. The trick, according to Mr. Norquist, is to "be grateful without being satisfied." In other words, organizations have to show the administration they are thankful for incremental victories, while showing members that they will continue to fight for more.
For cultural conservatives, in particular, the "grateful" part of the equation has been problematic in the past. Armed with an absolute sense of right and wrong, many pro-family groups have demanded total victory and denounced an incremental approach. But after years of frustration, conservative groups now seem willing to win the war one battle at a time. Few are calling for an immediate shuttering at the federal Department of Education, for instance, and almost no one is demanding a pro-life constitutional amendment as proof of loyalty to the cause.
Instead, some of Washington's most conservative organizations are looking for quick, achievable wins. "I want to see George W. Bush come right back at the liberals on partial-birth abortion," said Ken Connor, newly installed as president of the Family Research Council. Along with executive orders restoring President Reagan's family impact studies and the Mexico City policy, Mr. Connor believes that would quickly help to "create an environment in which every human being is welcome in life and protected by law."
On the tax issue, rather than demanding a major restructuring such as a flat tax, FRC is pushing for three more realistic goals: eliminating the marriage penalty, creating education savings accounts, and doing away with the death tax. And in the education arena, Mr. Connor ticks off goals such as reducing administrative paperwork, expanding charter schools, and implementing school report cards.
Conservatives clearly have scaled back their near-term expectations, and to Mr. Weyrich, this is a good sign. "I hope we've learned the lesson by now that the perfect can't be the enemy of the good," he said.
In their eagerness to identify and celebrate small victories, of course, pro-family groups run the risk of becoming the new administration's lap dogs, rather than its watchdogs. "My hope is that compromise will not be the operating philosophy," said Mike Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association. Though he is all for what he calls "carefully managed progress," he says organizations must stick to their principles, regardless of which party controls the White House. While most pro-family groups have remained silent on Mr. Bush's national testing plan, for example, Mr. Farris recently wrote a newspaper editorial blasting the proposal-just as he did under President Clinton.
Mr. Connor at FRC agrees that the allure of "access" to a Republican administration can cause conservative organizations to lose their independence and their focus. "We ought to be issue driven, not partisan driven. I'm the first to say that we should praise the administration and the Congress when they do the right thing, and we should never fail to bring their shortcomings to light. We will do that if we remain faithful to the issues. But if our goal is to be simply on the inside, then they've got us where they want us."
Whether inside or outside, if social conservatives seem less visible or vocal in this administration than in previous GOP administrations, Mr. Norquist argues that may actually be a sign of their success. "Going back eight or 10 years, social conservatives were almost in their own ghetto," he said. "They're less visible now because they're everywhere. The good news is that when groups like the Christian Coalition aren't as prominent, the people who might normally be running a local Coalition chapter are now working as party chairmen or campaign directors.... The center-right coalition is more comfortable with the issues raised by social conservatives, and this president is more comfortable with their concerns than Reagan was.
"Is the social conservative movement stronger than it used to be? Yeah. They're insiders. Bush and his people talk to them regularly. They're seen as key allies. They've taken a tremendous step forward."