Analysis: Faded Robertson fades

By PETER ROFF, UPI National Political Analyst  |  Dec. 6, 2001 at 3:58 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 6 (UPI) -- The big political story Thursday morning was the announcement that Marion G. "Pat" Robertson had resigned as president of the Christian Coalition, a group he founded in the late 1980s that became a major force in American politics.

The news is not surprising, as the organization has been in decline for some time. What is surprising is the amount of attention Robertson's departure attracted.

The coalition has, for some time, been a spent political force. It has, in many ways, fallen victim to its own success.

Robertson's resignation is just "the culmination of a long decline. [It] formalized what had already been occurring since 1995," Marshall Wittmann, who once led the group's Capitol Hill lobbying office, told United Press International.

Robertson founded the group in the late '80s, building it out of the large numbers of political and socially conservative evangelical Christians who had been politically energized by his failed 1988 run for the Republican presidential nomination.

With day-to-day operations in the hands of Ralph Reed, a young political operative with a reputation in GOP circles as one of the best under-35 organizers in the business, the group quickly rose to a position of prominence, honored by its friends and feared by its enemies.

The presence of a newly energized community of conservative religious voters turned U.S. politics on its head.

It accelerated the collapse of the South as a stronghold for the Democrats, turning it into a GOP bastion. It also placed religious and social issues back on the table, re-igniting debates on abortion funding, school prayer, and the role of religion in society.

Opponents of the new group raised its profile dramatically by engaging in an aggressive campaign against them, utilizing the media, the political community and the legal community to help them do it. In a perfect demonstration of the law of unintended consequences, the campaign against the coalition only made it more politically viable. Its members found the opposition status they enjoyed to be a source of pride.

"The energy behind the organization was in its opposition and its insurgency," Wittmann says.

As the group reached maturity, it became less necessary. Some of its agenda was enacted into law but, even more significantly, politicians of both parties were forced to give at least lip-service to their concerns, fearing the wrath of their activists and their dreaded voter guides that were distributed right before Election Day all across America.

At the same time, its more active and politically skilled members outgrew the organization, making the jump into party politics.

In several states, Republican Party leadership was pushed aside in favor of a more activist breed of organizers and managers, many of whom either had the support, or were themselves members, of the coalition.

But with their remarkable skill at opposition politics as the coalition's biggest strength, it turned out that the Republican landslide of 1994 took much of the wind out of the group's sails.

Wittmann believes that political success was very difficult for the organization to handle "because of the unrealized expectations that were attached to Republican political victories. Any religious movement that enters politics eventually has to compromise, which takes the steam out of the core organizing principle."

The GOP victories, the departure of Reed from the group, several high-profile Federal Election Commission complaints and unfavorable IRS rulings also helped accelerate the group's decline.

For anyone who follows politics closely, Robertson's resignation is a mere formality. He has kept the group at arm's length for some time, especially when compared to his involvement in its heyday. As many on the right will attest, Robertson moved on long before he moved out of the leadership.

Some political observers see the coverage of Robertson's resignation as wishful thinking by some in the media that the influence of conservative religious activists is waning.

But, these observers are quick to point out, with the president of the United States self-identifying with their values and much of their political agenda made law, the movement may be stronger than ever even as its most well-known organization may be about to disappear.

Many of the same things, after all, were said about the influence of politically conservative religious activists when the Rev. Jerry Falwell shut the doors of The Moral Majority. Just a few years after that, however, the influence of conservative Christians on the American political process was stronger than ever.

One group that immediately realized the same thing this time around is the liberal group People for the American Way, started by Hollywood producer Norman Lear to fight the influence of Christian conservatives. He said Thursday "No one should be fooled. Pat Robertson isn't going away."

If Robertson's departure had come at the height of the group's influence, it would have been significant. Now, as Wittmann says, it is just old news.

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