Conservatives Go RINO Hunting

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It’s predictable that after a major election, one political party begins a round of bitter infighting and finger pointing. What’s surprising is when it’s the winning party. But ever since Arlen Specter, a day after winning a fifth term, said it was unlikely that the senate would confirm judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade, the Republicans have been fighting a nasty battle. Social conservatives have been flooding the offices of Republican Senators with demands that Specter not become the new chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Current chairman Orrin Hatch is supposed to turn the gavel over to Specter under G.O.P. caucus rules.

Specter has been lobbying his colleagues and defending his record. On the other side, the Christian Defense Coalition held a pray-in on the Capitol steps. The judiciary committee and the G.O.P. caucus won’t vote on Specter’s fate until January, but Hatch and other members came out in support of Specter Thursday and it seems unlikely he’ll be voted down. No senator has come out against him, probably because no senator wants to mess with the seniority system that determines chairmanships.

Still, it’s amazing how quickly the religious right has redirected all the energy they used to help re-elect President Bush toward scuttling Specter’s chairmanship. They seem to be the only people in politics who didn’t need a post-election vacation. It shows they believe Bush’s victory has given them a mandate to control the Republican party. But it also shows that they are insecure about the party’s loyalty to them, and that the Republicans could be facing four years of growing tension and squabbling.

Specter is well-known in Washington for being abrasive, hard-driving and not a team player. But it’s amazing he didn’t see this coming. He was one of just two incumbent GOP senators who faced a serious primary challenge this year. Congressman Pat Toomey took on Specter in the spring with a lot of help (and funds) from far-right allies. Conservatives have hated Specter for years; the National Review called him “the worst Republican senator” last year. But Bush and Pennsylvania’s other senator, Rick Santorum — both of whom have a lot more in common with Toomey — came to the moderate’s rescue, campaigning for him and calling his renomination crucial for Bush’s chances to win the state in November. Bush lost the Keystone state, Specter won and immediately made his Roe comments, leading conservatives feeling that, as they suspected, Specter can’t be trusted with their agenda.

Conservatives point to exit polls to argue that evangelical Christians are responsible for Bush’s victory. (There’s some evidence to support that, but a lot more suggests they were just one of several key factors.) Many conservatives feel that now is the best time to take their mandate for a test drive. Even if they don’t scuttle Specter’s ascension, they will have fired a warning shot toward any Republicans taking their support for granted. Bob Jones III, president of the conservative Christian university wrote a congratulatory letter to Bush the day after the election and told the president, “In your re-election, God has graciously granted America — though she doesn’t deserve it — a reprieve from the agenda of paganism. You have been given a mandate ... Don’t equivocate. Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ.”

But the social conservatives are also attacking because they’re afraid. They have been here before. In late 1980 they were thrilled after they helped elect Ronald Reagan but that excitement evaporated when the Administration told them the social agenda would have to wait until Reagan’s economic plans passed. Many members of the far right still believe that while Reagan put their issues on the table, he never seriously fought for any of them. After four decades in politics the religious right has few tangible victories to point to. Abortion is legal, prayer is not back in schools and now they are fighting same-sex marriage. George W. Bush may be a born-again Christian who speaks their language, but he has spent the past week talking about Social Security, tax reform and world affairs. During the campaign, he signalled he might support civil unions, which social conservatives believe is an endorsement of homosexuality.

And the Christian right isn’t the only uneasy constituency in the Republican party. Fiscal conservatives unhappy about the deficit, isolationists and foreign policy realists unhappy about the war and libertarians hostile to the Patriot Act all held their tongues during the fight against John Kerry, but may be ready to start talking. Still, Republicans can take comfort in one thing: It’s better to be the divided party in power than a unified party on the outside.