Covering a GOP implosion

implosion2A day before the David Kuo book leaked onto the airwaves, conservative commentator Tucker Carlson said on The Chris Matthews Show that "the elites in the Republican Party have pure contempt for the evangelicals who put their party in power." Republicans were pandering to the values vote by bringing up gay marriage, all the while holding contempt for evangelicals, Carlson said. Was this a faint rumble or was this old news to those closely covering Bush's faith-based initiative? Then Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction hit the airwaves and blogs and the faint rumble became something of a roar. But note it was a media roar driven by something other than a substantial shift in the issues. Yes, the details were interesting, but this story had already been told.

With three weeks to go until the Nov. 7 election, Washington Monthly contributing editor Amy Sullivan is back in her pulpit, as tmatt would say, claiming that President Bush disdains evangelicals. Has the entire building now collapsed? Here's the crux of her argument:

The problem is that Kuo's book creates cognitive dissonance for liberals. Conspiracy theories about theocracy have haunted liberals for the last few years, and, if you believe that religious conservatives lead Bush around by the nose, evidence to the contrary is impossible to absorb. Everyone on the left "knows" that the faith-based initiative is a slush-fund, a jackpot for religious conservatives. If it turns out instead to be a political sham that produced only 1 percent of the new funds it promised for faith-based organizations, liberals need [to] rethink their theocracy-phobia.

Since they haven't done so yet, they're missing a golden opportunity. Evangelicals have become increasingly disillusioned with the Bush administration and the Republican Party in general over the last two years. While 78 percent of white evangelicals voted for Bush in 2004, only 57 percent approve of the job he's doing now, and only 52 percent say they are likely to support Republicans in the November elections.

Those numbers have not dropped because conservative evangelicals picked up Kevin Phillips's American Theocracy and became worried that Bush was too religious. Instead, evangelical support has plummeted in large part because they, along with other religious conservatives, have begun to suspect they've been played by Republicans -- used for their votes and then ignored.

implosionSullivan argues that Kuo's book will not ignite the implosion that is evangelical support for Republicans. That long fuse was lit a long time ago when evangelicals realized that the Bush team was not really all that excited about enacting their agenda. No, really?

This idea that Republicans are losing their grip on the evangelical conservative vote is nothing new. That relationship has been showing cracks for a long time. But it's only now, three weeks before the election, that the big heavy media machine is getting behind the story as the party faces losing control of at least part of one of the branches of government. The New York Times' David Kirkpatrick writes that things are getting nasty and "unusually personal" at an "unusually early" time.

The best part of Kirkpatrick's article is the back-and-forth with former GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Focus on the Family's James Dobson. Check it out:

In recent weeks, Mr. Armey has stepped up a public campaign against the influence of Dr. James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and an influential voice among evangelical protestants. In an interview published last month in "The Elephant in the Room," a book by Ryan Sager about splits among conservatives, Mr. Armey accused Congressional Republicans of "blatant pandering to James Dobson" and "his gang of thugs," whom Mr. Armey called "real nasty bullies" -- arguments he reprised on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and in an open letter on the Web site organization FreedomWorks.

In an interview this week, Mr. Armey said catering to Dr. Dobson and his allies had led the party to abandon budget-cutting. And he said Christian conservatives could cost Republicans seats around the country, especially in Ohio.

"The Republicans are talking about things like gay marriage and so forth, and the Democrats are talking about the things people care about, like how do I pay my bills?" he said.

... Mr. Armey, who identifies himself as an evangelical, said he was tired of Christian conservative leaders threatening that their supporters would stay away from the ballot box unless they got what they wanted.

... In a statement on Thursday, Dr. Dobson said Mr. Armey was "still ticked" over a long-ago House leadership race in which Dr. Dobson endorsed someone else, and he restated his warnings to Republicans that social conservative voters "would abandon them if they forgot the promises they had made."

Other splits in the GOP abound. There is the whole Iraq-war on terrorism issue, former Rep. Mark Foley's instant messages and the GOP leadership's failure to stop him and of course the deficit. But nowhere is the noise louder of the implosion than from the religious corner of the debate, where Dobson is accused of having gangs of thugs at his disposal.

But have evangelicals really abandoned the GOP? Or is this more of a struggle for the soul of the party? And when evangelical leaders say that Kuo's revelations are not that much of a surprise, I believe them, and reporters should take particular note that the alleged Christianism agenda of the GOP has more than a few holes in it. For reference, follow this train of headlines and decks in World, which is edited by Marvin Olasky, former Bush political adviser and author of The Tragedy of American Compassion:

world mag cover"Beneath the radar: As the press focuses elsewhere, President Bush's faith-based initiative is quietly gaining momentum" (Oct. 11, 2003)

"A lasting legacy? President touts a signature issue, but without legislation, its future may rise or fall based upon the occupant of the Oval Office" (June 12, 2004)

"Bureaucracy plus plastic chairs? A window of opportunity is open now, but maybe not for long" (Jan. 29, 2005)

"Stamped Out: Ten years ago Governor George W. Bush jump-started his faith-based initiative by standing up to Texas bureaucrats over licenses for Teen Challenge. Now Bush administrators in Washington are hassling Teen Challenge groups around the country. The reason? Licensing." (Aug. 27, 2005)

"Stamp of approval: Bush administration reverses policy for faith-based rehab" (Sept. 10, 2005)

The Bush team abandoned the faith-based initiative a long time ago, but the mainstream media failed to write that story. Now they play catch-up.

While the party's overall support may be imploding -- and it may very well face minority status come January due to low evangelical voter turnout -- Dobson and company still believe that he can still hold the party accountable for its promises. Armey and company are calling for a divorce, but are the evangelicals? Perhaps that's the story reporters should be focusing on.

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