This essay was originally published in the December 8, 1980 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here
Conservative groups are already planning eagerly for 1982
“Like all the New Right, I’m between five and ten feet off the ground,” exults Richard Viguerie, who loosely coordinates the grass-roots conservative movement from his computer nerve center in Falls Church, Va. And indeed the spirits of the right are soaring after the triumph of the G.O.P. at the polls last month. Hardly taking time out to celebrate, the groups composing the conservative alliance are already preparing for another assault on the liberals in 1982. Not only are they taking aim again at some Democratic Senators, but they have added a sprinkling of Republicans to their list. They are also thinking of going after key Democratic leaders in the House. Asserts Terry Dolan, head of the National Conservative Political Action Committee (N.C.P.A.C.): “It’s never too early.”
As it prepares for the future triumphs it envisions, the New Right is undismayed by the fact that there is still a hot debate over how much it affected the outcome of the 1980 elections. One difficulty is that the New Right is a confederation of disparate political and religious groups bound together by their hostility toward what they consider to be the excesses of the liberal-left and the erosion of values in America. At the center of this alliance is the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, which specializes in campaign organization and funding. Survival’s Paul Weyrich is a top strategist for the New Right, advising such groups as the well-organized N.C.P.A.C., which aggressively stalks vulnerable liberals, and the Moral Majority, founded in 1979 by TV Evangelist Jerry Falwell. The Moral Majority spent an estimated $5 million this year on its campaign, claims to have signed up 72,000 ministers and 4 million lay members, and angered liberals, as well as a number of evangelicals, by arguing that Christians should not only fight for prayers in schools and against abortions, but should also actively oppose such measures as the Panama Canal treaties and SALT II.
The conservative evangelicals undoubtedly hurt Jimmy Carter. According to an ABC News/Harris survey, Carter won the white Baptist vote in 1976, 56% to 43%, and lost it this time, 56% to 34%. The Harris analysis indicates that the shift in the evangelical vote accounted for two-thirds of Reagan’s ten-point margin over Carter. Other experts do not agree; they claim that the New Right had its main effect in state and local elections where certain targeted liberal candidates were already in serious trouble.
Early and methodical organization was the key to this year’s New Right campaign. In its effort to get the Silent Majority to roar, the alliance made extensive and artful use of direct mail techniques. By marketing their cause directly to supporters, the alliance circumvented what it considers to be the liberal-dominated media. Says Viguerie: “The left had a monopoly of all the microphones of the country. Never before has the right been able to bypass the evening news.”
The New Right drew a bead on selected targets around the country, often with deadly effect. Weyrich, for example, saw an opening in Alabama and deftly exploited it by encouraging retired Admiral Jeremiah Denton, who had spent 7½ years in North Vietnamese prison camps after his aircraft had been shot down, to run for the Republican Senate nomination. Deeply conservative but a political neophyte, Denton easily won the Republican primary.
Then the New Right took on Jim Folsom, who had beaten Democratic Senator Donald Stewart in the primary. An intense ad campaign suggested that Folsom was backed by the Democratic National Committee and therefore supported its stands on ERA, gun control, federal funding of abortions, and gay rights. Not only did Folsom endorse none of those positions, but he insists he took no money from the D.N.C. On Nov. 4, Folsom lost, 48% to 51%, to Denton. The Moral Majority, says Folsom, had “a tremendous effect on my defeat.”
N.C.P.A.C. was responsible for a most ambitious crusade: it drew up a “hit list” of key Democratic liberal Senators, including Idaho’s Frank Church, South Dakota’s George McGovern, Indiana’s Birch Bayh, Iowa’s John Culver, California’s Alan Cranston and Missouri’s Thomas Eagleton. In the end, only Cranston and Eagleton managed to win. The New Right claims it helped defeat the other four, but the evidence is inconclusive.
The N.C.P.A.C. spent a minimum of $1.2 million on the targeted Senate races, including at least $260,000 against Church and $150,000 against McGovern. Says Terry Dolan of the two Senators: “They were the most obnoxious.”
N.C.P.A.C.’s main object was to expose the incumbent’s voting record for the citizens back home. The Senators tended to vote to the left of their constituents while playing down this fact in their campaigns. Says Viguerie: “N.C.P.A.C. went up to the doorsteps and left the dead cats.”
Much of the New Right’s rhetoric was no more exaggerated than the usual campaign fare. In Idaho, Church was criticized for his strong attacks on the CIA, which was fair enough, but he was also falsely accused of disclosing the names of CIA agents and thereby putting their lives in danger. A television spot used against Church showed an abandoned missile silo, making the point that he had voted against military programs. In fact, the Air Force had removed the missile because it was outdated, and Church had voted in favor of the weapon’s replacement.
As the campaign wore on, most of the Republican candidates prudently distanced themselves from the New Right groups and some publicly denounced them. Says G.O.P. Congressman Dan Quayle, who defeated Birch Bayh in the Indiana race: “We did not want their help.
They have a potential to hurt the people they claim they’re helping.”
Even G.O.P. Congressman Steven Symms, who beat Church by only 1% of the vote, feels that the New Right turned out to be a “wash.” At first, he says, “they put the incumbent on the defensive, but eventually people became indifferent to them. They had no impact at the wire. The bottom line is that the same thing that elected Reagan elected me.” Agrees Bayh: “With a couple of points off the inflation rate and a point off the unemployment rate, we’d have made N.C.P.A.C. look like the size of a pea.”
Colorado Senator Gary Hart believes his narrow victory shows that a Democrat can beat back a New Right challenge. “I was not perceived as a knee-jerk ideologue,” he says. “I did have a positive policy on defense.”
Dolan has already named his targets for 1982. Among them: Ted Kennedy, who is given only a 6.5% conservative voting rating by N.C.P.A.C.; Michigan Senator Donald Riegle with a 7.75% rating; and Ohio’s Howard Metzenbaum with 8.25%. But the group also includes some moderate and even hawkish Democrats: Texas’ Lloyd Bentsen, New York’s Pat Moynihan and Washington’s Henry Jackson. Even a few Republicans have made the list: Vermont’s Robert Stafford, Rhode Island’s John Chafee, Connecticut’s Lowell Weicker.
N.C.P.A.C. plans to start an advertising campaign against the offending Senators as early as next March, and estimates it will spend twice as much as in the past campaign. It also intends to spend more time and money on House races; its members are now searching the hustings for conservatives to challenge incumbents.
But in 1982 the New Right will find its opponents prepared. “I’m not surprised to be on N.C.P.A.C.’s list,” says Kennedy, “but I’m not intimidated either. I’m looking forward to the campaign.” Says Jackson: “I just laugh. I get on all kinds of lists. Most of the time I’ve been on the lists of the far left. Now I’m right in the middle, where politicians strive to be.”
Missouri’s Eagleton, who was also targeted but won re-election handily, believes that N.C.P.A.C.’s tactics helped him. He is now preparing a report on how Democrats can fight back. The defeated McGovern is forming a Common Sense Coalition to battle the right-wing forces. Says Cranston: “We’ll have a body of information to pass on to those who face the next assault.”
Dolan acknowledges that it will be tougher to topple liberals in 1982 because most come from heavily populated states where the organization’s funds will not have as much impact as the conservatives feel they did in Idaho and South Dakota. The N.C.P.A.C. had no success in California this election trying to dislodge Cranston, the Democratic whip in the Senate.
Whatever the immediate effect of the
New Right on elections, its continued growth certainly could influence the political balance of the U.S. Houston Pollster Lance Tarrance thinks that the movement has been “whittling away at the lower-class fundamentalist whites who have always voted the way their daddies voted—straight Democratic. If you cut this group out of the Democratic coalition, it will really hurt. The effect of the Moral Majority is not as great as is claimed, but more than its detractors care to admit.” Florida’s Democratic Senator Lawton Chiles, for one, does not believe that the evangelical tide has stopped rising: he is already preparing for his election fight in 1982.
In the wake of the election, liberals are attacking the religious groups of the New Right for violating the separation of church and state, a position they never took, incidentally, when liberal clerics were engaging in political activity in the 1960s. In an ad in the New York Times that matches the more intemperate rhetoric of the New Right, the American Civil Liberties Union warned that the conservative “agenda is clear and frightening; they mean to capture the power of government and use it to establish a nightmare of religious and political orthodoxy.” Last month, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, a New York liberal, called for a coalition to oppose the “chilling power of the radical right.” It is “no coincidence,” he said, that the “rise of right-wing Christian fundamentalism has been accompanied by the most serious outbreak of anti-Semitism since the outbreak of World War II.”
During the campaign, the Rev. Bailey Smith, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, did say that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” But Smith, who took no part in the election, has apologized for the remark and wants to have a meeting with the Anti-Defamation League to clear up the matter. Fundamentalists emphasize the centrality of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and many are fervent admirers of Israel. Last month, Prime Minister Menachem Begin gave an award to the Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell for his public support of Israel. Falwell insists that he hopes to recruit Jews, as well as Mormons, Roman Catholics and blacks, as his organization builds for the future.
In the coming years, as in the past election, overzealous leaders of the New Right may turn out to be their own worst enemies. Scoffs William Sweeney, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: “I give them six months before they start attacking Reagan.” Indeed, the day after the election, Weyrich publicly warned Vice President-elect George Bush that he had better take a stronger stand against abortion and for prayers in school. Bush responded to New Right pressures: “I am not intimidated by those who suggest I better hew the line. Hell with them.”
Though it is full of pride and passion now, the true test of the New Right will be whether it can, without compromising its principles, accommodate itself to the U.S. political system, which has a way of punishing extremists by banishing them into obscurity.