“For the Lord had regard for Obama and his offering but he did not have regard for McCain and his offering.”
When the McCain-Davis-Black team accepted and then publicly repudiated the recent endorsement of evangelical Christian leaders they broke one of the most powerful laws of modern political life. You can’t attack evangelical leaders of influence. It is so tempting. Some of them are so outrageous. It wins you so much goodwill with the national media. But it is a deadly mistake. Ask “President” Colin Powell or “President” Walter Mondale. And now McCain has done it twice, once in 2000 and once in 2008. Ouch. Better to not have the endorsements at all than to have them and reject them.
In the past some targets, like Jerry Falwell, had huge negatives even within their own faith. But there are two problems in taking them on. First, born again Christians, like other constituencies, don’t like outsiders attacking their own. And second, there are just too many born again Christians out there. Offend only a few and it may be a few too many, especially for a Republican.
Let’s look at the numbers. Barna now tell us that 42% of all Americans claim to be born again. In 1976, when Jimmy Carter famously used the born again stick to pole vault into power the number was 32% When I helped George Herbert Walker Bush garner a record 81% of the born again vote in 1988 it represented 39%. Most people don’t like those numbers and refuse to believe them. The Bushes and Clintons have dominated modern American public life for twenty years because they have embraced them and understood them.
Media ignorance of religion in America, worn with a badge, has led to absurd notions. When the Moral Majority collapsed in 1989, news accounts trumpeted the fall of the religious right. When the Christian Coalition saw their numbers fade, there was another round of the same. But insiders knew that the Moral Majority always had been controlled and run by Jerry Falwell, representing only a small part of the born again vote and the Christian Coalition belonged to Pat Robertson and only represented another part. The question for a politician has always been how many people will stand if I punch this particular button? And those numbers, the numbers of Americans claiming to be born again, have only been growing. Even Democrats now end their speeches with “God Bless America,” a part of Reganese language that used to drive the media up the wall.
So why do politicians attack evangelical figures? Well, because they are immensely unpopular with the non-evangelical public and it wins them instant kudos with the media. In 1984, we in the Bush campaign obtained a private Gallup survey, commissioned by a major ministry, showing the dangers of associating with almost any evangelical leader of influence. Billy Graham, the most pristine of them all, was at the time the subject of inquiries over illegally retained nonprofit income and still had a bit of the Nixon taint. And all religious figures, not just Rev. Wright and Rev. Hagee, all of them, have views that seem irrational or intolerant to outsiders. Only a few years ago a Catholic believer would be damned to hell for stepping inside a Protestant church.
In the “Herbert” Bush campaign we started our outreach to evangelicals in 1985, even before the candidate was formally in the race. We called it “building a relationship with evangelicals.” By 1986 we had finished our work. George Herbert Walker Bush had met one on one or in small groups with more than one thousand evangelical leaders of influence. I maintained those relationships for him with correspondence and auto pen and a few non public events but basically the work was done two years before the election.
In 1992, his desperate campaign had Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan address the national convention, a big mistake. He went to Bob Jones University, (not on my watch, in 1988 we quietly met the professors at a nearby Holiday Inn,) and appeared the day before election with Jerry Falwell at Liberty University. It was too little and way too late.
In 2000 George W. Bush, who had been my boss in 1988, knew the importance of the evangelical leaders of influence. Like Blacks, they do not respond well to mailers or general appeal. Eventually, no matter what your polls show, they follow their leaders. If they trust their preachers about eternity, it is no small stretch to take their word about a temporal election.
But “W” couldn’t do the early work we did in 1986 because unlike his father, he was running for re-election as governor of Texas. He could not afford to appear as a candidate for president and all the early work with evangelicals was put on hold. By 2000, “W” wisely knew how dangerous it was to have your picture taken with the preachers so close to the general election. He went over the heads of the leaders of influence and appealed to the born again public.
In the Iowa GOP debate, when asked who his favorite political philosopher was, he famously ignored the question and answered, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” But all the mailers and the direct appeal barely worked. He split the born again vote with Al Gore and four million evangelicals sat at home. It took a majority on the Supreme Court to win. The lesson? You need those leaders of influence.
In the last decade, the only pictures of George W. Bush and preachers have been with Billy Graham and Black clergymen. And no more of Graham since the Nixon tapes with its anti-Semitism have emerged. In the pre-Rev. Wright days, black preachers were not offensive to the media. Governor Bush once called me excitedly after visiting T. D. Jakes church saying that there was a big picture of him on the front page of the newspaper. “Evangelicals – but in a Black church, you can’t beat that.”
But John McCain, who once called evangelical leaders of influence “agents of intolerance” has resorted to no such nuance. He started out wisely by calling on evangelical leaders two years ago to patch things up. The media was cynical but at least they saw it as something that had to be done. The problem was he didn’t do enough. The formula, at least for a Republican, is early and strong. Too late and you risk backlash. Too weak and you don’t get it done, it doesn’t last till election day.
And then McCain’s outreach is being run – by otherwise talented politicians – who have no clue about evangelicals and have demonstrated in the past that they flat out don’t like them. The Obama-Clinton campaigns know more and have shown it. (The Democrat strategy, btw, is quite the opposite in some respects. They can court evangelical leaders late. It only appears to moderate their hard edge liberalism. No one fears they will be stacking the court with hard line conservatives. LOL.)
It has long been accepted lore that it was Black-Manafort who smeared evangelical congressman John Conlan and forced him out of the Ronald Reagan campaign late in 1979, a move that still smarts with evangelical leaders of influence. They were right in the middle of the Robert Dole loss in 1996, which stole all the good ideas it could get from evangelicals and then closed the door to any participation. So it is no big surprise to see them floundering around in this recent comedy of errors.
They should not have waited so long to meet evangelical leaders. Their meeting should have been personal but private. They should never have trumpeted public endorsements, ever. That word gets out on its own among evangelicals who have their own television and print media. And to do so this late, and this poorly vetted, almost defies comprehension. And they should not now be attacking the very leaders who endorsed them.
Evangelicals do not like seeing their own attacked, even if they deserve it. Hagee’s anti-Catholic remarks, which actually originate with Martin Luther and were popularized in the last century by Fundamentalist, John R. Rice’s dispensationalism, were one thing. Unbiblical as they may be to this author. After all, there is a Catholic tradition which sees Protestant churches as false. But suggesting that John Hagee is anti-Semitic is not only offensive to evangelicals it is offensive to Jews. Only the media, completely isolated from religious life in America, can get away with such ignorance. The public knows better. It was a mistake to attack Hagee.
Ask Walter Mondale, whose 1984 public attacks on Jerry Falwell became part of his national campaign. Seemed like a good idea. Everybody hated Falwell. But in the general election Mondale lost every state in the union except Minnesota.
Ask “President” Colin Powell who lashed out at evangelical leaders in a Barbara Walter’s interview a few years back. He was instantly beloved by the media. At least twice in the last decade Ambassador Powell has had a clear road to the mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue but the road passed through Iowa and evangelical territory. Polls showed he could win a general election but his exploratory inquiries showed he had killed himself with born againers.
Ask Rudy Giuliani, whose attacks on evangelical leaders made him gun shy of Iowa and forced him to commit to a strategy that could not win.
Hey, ask John McCain, who became the beloved of the national media for trashing evangelicals in 2000 but now faces another media darling and needs those same evangelicals enthusiastically on his side and can’t get them. “Enthusiastically” being the operative word here. For the evangelicals are what the old unions were to the Democrat party of the 1950-s and 60’s. Their private expenditures, voter cards, voter registration efforts represent a built-in infrastructure that dwarfs the GOP. Almost any one of the six Charismatic ministries now being targeted by Baptist Republican Senator Grassley have mailing lists as large as the National Rifle Association. You can count them out.
The numbers are still close in this Obama-McCain race. And the loyalties this time are greatly jumbled. But that won’t last. Evangelicals will follow their leaders and many of those leaders will be turning to spiritual matters now and leaving the temporal matters to others. Millions of dollars in voter identification efforts will be left on the table, unspent. Some evangelicals will even end up in private photo sessions with Barack Obama at Butler Aviation. Most will stay home. They will lose the Supreme Court but hey maybe they can take care of a few other important “non-Republican” things on their agenda, like cleaning up the environment and helping the poor and further reducing racial and sexual prejudice.
Like it or not, unless something happens to change things, something beyond the control of the media and John McCain, his campaign is now cooked. Obama only has to avoid public attacks on Christians. And when he does so privately, he better make sure that this time, all telephone cameras are turned off.