Out of the wilderness?

Wondering what role they will play in the new administration, cultural conservatives view the new president as a natural-though cautious-ally

Issue: "One president, under God," Feb. 3, 2001

"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."

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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."


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