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Inside the Beltway: Washington Analysis and Opinion

Living with the clout of religious conservatives

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

“Fringe politics” used be a disease that mostly afflicted Democrats and left Republicans untouched. No more.

For science especially, the GOP’s loss of that immunity has immense implications. Like it or not, scientists will have to learn to engage the religious right with a positive message. Here’s why.

During the last forty years, Republicans have generally been able to campaign and govern nationally from the center, while Democrats, more often than not, have been held hostage by the liberal left. This has left Democrats with a pretty shoddy record in presidential elections and Republicans with a fairly reliable White House address.

But recent events prove that the GOP’s resistance to “fringe politics” is largely history. Harriet Miers’ failed Supreme Court candidacy and the President’s choice of Samuel Alito as the replacement nominee should put to rest any lingering doubts. Alito–whom liberal critics have given the moniker Scalito after Antonin Scalia, arguably the most reliable conservative among the nine sitting Supreme Court justices–has a fifteen-year appellate court track record of judicial conservatism that makes moderates and liberals squirm.

Miers was no darling of the left either, but when President Bush tapped his legal counsel to fill Sandra Day O’Connor’s seat as Associate Justice of the United States Supreme court, it wasn’t the left that first hauled out the howitzers. It was Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, a leader of socially conservative Republicans, who began firing away. His Senate colleague, Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, by contrast had cautious praise for the President’s selection.

Miers’ lack of experience with constitutional law didn’t help her cause, but she wouldn’t have been the first associate justice to have had a thin résumé in that arena. Since 1941, ten nominees who had no prior judicial experience received Senate confirmation. They include Chief Justices William Rehnquist and Earl Warren, and well respected jurists Lewis Powell, Tom Clark, Byron White and Arthur Goldberg.

But for social conservatives, especially religious fundamentalists, Miers didn’t have the right stuff. Yes, almost two decades ago she had joined the growing numbers of Americans who self-identify as “Born Again Christians.” Yes, she had campaigned for a Dallas City Council seat in 1989 as a staunch pro-life candidate. But as a high-level corporate attorney, she had never appeared before the court on the key issues social conservatives hold dear. In the end, that proved to be her undoing.

Faced with unrelenting, withering criticism by the conservative right, President Bush eventually capitulated and asked Miers to withdraw her name. She became only the seventh Supreme Court nominee in the history of the country to do so, and the first since Douglas Ginsburg, a Reagan nominee, withdrew in 1987 after admitting that he had smoked marijuana as a member of the Harvard Law School faculty.

The way most political analysts read the Miers debacle, it was evidence of a gross miscalculation by the President, a lack of focus on the selection process by the President’s principal domestic policy advisor, Karl Rove–who was distracted by his own legal problems–and Miers’ own inattentiveness to the details of her nomination.

From my perspective, though, there is something more fundamental at work. The numbers tell the story.

According to recent polls, 20 percent of Americans are hard core social liberals, and they vote consistently Democratic; 33 percent are hard core social conservatives, and they vote Republican; 47 percent , a clear plurality, are moderates, and they are the swing-voters who ultimately determine the outcome of any election. However, within the political parties, the moderates have less clout than their national plurality status might suggest, in part because they tend to be less passionately involved, but in the case of the GOP, additionally because of simple math.

In the last four presidential elections, Republican and Democratic candidates split the popular vote almost evenly. That means that while only about 40 percent of the Democratic vote came from liberals, a whopping 67 percent of the Republican vote came from conservatives.

So although conservatives, like liberals, still lie in the wings or “fringes” of the American political spectrum, their numbers, which have grown substantially in the last two decades, now allow them to control the GOP agenda. They demonstrated it by forcing President Bush to substitute a proven conservative, such as Alito, for Miers who remained suspect, despite her religious conversion two decades ago.

For science advocates, the dominance of social conservatives in the Republican ranks poses a significant challenge. Relying solely on the influence of industry to promote federal support of science with the new GOP is not a winning strategy. Nor is pitting science against religion, as some prominent members of the science community have done repeatedly, to the delight of the major media. Instead, scientists must learn to engage conservatives by emphasizing the benefits science brings to all Americans, regardless of social or religious preference. For the next three years, at least, it’s the only winning strategy.



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