WHILE IN WASHINGTON, D.C., A FEW DAYS AGO, I stopped by for brief visits with three different friends who serve with three different advocacy groups (you might even call them lobbyists!) promoting conservative, pro-family agendas. Not surprisingly, all three seem buoyed by an air of optimism I hadn't detected for a long time.
It helps these folks-or, at least, so it would seem-to have the U.S. Senate back under Republican majority control. For now, the leverage is there--if the GOP has the gumption to exercise it--to confirm a few excellent judges, perhaps to slap some restraints on partial-birth abortion, to open the door for a bit more school choice, and generally to counter the ugly obstinacy of the Daschle leadership during the last year and a half.
But the optimism I found was hardly unqualified. For no sooner had it begun to settle in on everyone that family-friendly forces were once again in control when wham!-those family-friendly forces in Congress did an end-run on the pro-family lobbyists. The issue-bizarrely-was a bill on bankruptcy. Originally, it had nothing at all to do with traditional family issues, having been designed primarily by banking lobbyists to make it harder for people to run up big credit card bills and then to sidestep those bills by declaring bankruptcy.
It's quite possible to argue both sides of that bankruptcy issue (and I did just that in my column here dated March 17, 2001). The new problem came with an improbable amendment, which said in effect that no one protesting at an abortion clinic, and then facing fines for that activity, should ever be allowed to use bankruptcy as a means of avoiding those fines. The amendment was clearly punitive in nature, targeting a narrow group of people whose primary motivation was clearly a moral and not an economic issue.
The tussle was momentous. Pro-family and pro-life conservatives in the Republican Party were outraged that their cause was singled out in such a fashion. Pro-business conservatives in the party were outraged that the moral conservatives would make such a big deal of the matter, and charged that this was exactly the kind of high-profile foolishness that would stamp Republicans as extremists and cost them dearly in future elections. "Au contraire," replied the furious social conservatives. "We just won an election. We're the ones-not you banking executives-who got out the vote on Nov. 5. It's time you paid attention to us."
Amazingly, the pro-lifers beat back the bankers. To the surprise of both sides-and reportedly to the consternation of the Bush White House-the bankruptcy bill fell before an onslaught of phone calls and e-mails stirred up by Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, and others.
But all these staunch advocates for the family know how great is the distance between winning one battle and winning the war. The very process of winning any particular battle can conceivably lose you just enough friends so that it just gets harder to win the next battle. And which battles matter most in winning the war? So everything becomes a calculation-and that is always the same in Washington.
The big variable in Washington right now is that it is home to a president who enjoys respect. Respect from his supporters, of course-but also a newfound respect from his opponents. (Keep in mind how few years it has been since we had a president disrespected not just by his opponents, but even by his friends!)
And probably nobody in the whole country has to process more calculations every day of every week than the president. In a sense, that's what governing is all about. How many times, a president has to ask himself, can I afford to offend a smaller group of people in the hopes of gaining the support of a larger group? It sounds crass, of course--but you can't govern if you're not in office.
It's easier for the lobbyists and advocates. Their message is constant, for they typically have a single cause and a focused task. Day in and day out, win or lose, their job is simply to proclaim the truth that's important to them.
Elected officials have to process all that advocacy, scrapbook it together, and make it work. It struck me on my way home from Washington how frustrating a process that is, year after year. And for those of us who are zealous for particular truths and particular values, the frustration can be almost as keen with a presidency that has our respect as with one that doesn't.