Adapting a Different Playbook

Social Conservatives Face a New Reality

Posted March 13, 2009 at 6:06pm

For eight years social conservatives operated under the safeguard of a president who vowed to veto any legislation that would roll back restrictions on abortions and a Congress that rarely let such legislation reach his desk.

Now, not even two months into a new administration and with a new majority ruling Congress, leaders of the movement are forming new alliances and playing defense to stave off political and legislative attacks.

“People feel the sky is falling,— Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, said in a conference call last week with reporters. “There is no false protection. This is do or die for pro-life, and they feel it.—

The movement will make one of its first forays back into the White House tomorrow in a meeting with Joshua DuBois, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The meeting was arranged at the request of Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, and will include representatives from the Family Research Council and two other anti-abortion organizations. Described as a meet-and-greet, the meeting will also address two of the office’s public priorities, focusing on fatherhood and reducing the number of abortions.

“Those are two issues that conservative groups have been working on for years,— Wright said. “We want to start a dialogue, let them know what we do, see what vision they have and what kinds of things we can do together.—

Conservative leaders also point to new faces and an unprecedented level of activity and cooperation among fiscal and social conservatives as evidence that the movement is changing to adapt to its new reality. For the past decade, the bastion of conservative thought and strategy in Washington, D.C., has been the Wednesday breakfast meetings coordinated by anti-tax advocate and prominent conservative Grover Norquist.

“Grover’s meetings are still the most well-attended, but they’re not the premier meeting anymore,— said Tom McClusky, senior vice president of FRC Action, the FRC’s political arm. “A lot more action items are coming out of the smaller coalition gatherings.—

The anti-abortion movement’s first wake-up call came three days into the new administration, with President Barack Obama’s signing an executive order reversing the “Mexico City Policy— that barred recipients of U.S. foreign aid from promoting abortion as a method of family planning.

Since then, they have seen the reversal of Bush administration rules on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and job protections for health workers.

And they have risen in ire against White House personnel decisions, from staff-level hirings such as Communications Director Ellen Moran, a former executive director of the pro-abortion-rights group EMILY’s List, to the nomination of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D), a Catholic who supports abortion rights, for secretary of Health and Human Services.

“It’s like casualty Friday,— said Joy Yearout, director of political affairs for the Susan B. Anthony List, referring to the frequency of nominations late in the week. “It’s hard to keep up.—

After playing in the minority for the past eight years on abortion legislation, the anti-abortion movement is happy to let the social conservatives find their way.

“They’re stumbling out of the gates and we’re not going to get in their way,— said an official from a leading abortion-rights organization who asked not to be named. “There is no way to step inside a circular firing squad.—

Conservative leaders are regrouping with a strategy of moving legislation to the states and focusing on a nonpartisan political strategy at the federal level to reverse the loss of 23 anti-abortion seats in the U.S. House and Senate in the 2008 election.

“In the next few years, things are going to be more political,— McClusky said. “Any Republican who strays from the platform we’re going to target, and, at the same time, we’re going to defend conservative Democrats who support the same values that we do.—

The Susan B. Anthony List, a group that raised more than $7 million in the 2008 election cycle for the mobilization of anti-abortion female voters, was the first to signal the new strategy by announcing last week that former Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) would lead its Votes Have Consequences initiative, describing it as the most “aggressive effort— in existence to target lawmakers who are out of sync with the abortion views of their constituents.

The group declined to set a fundraising goal or say how much money it would put towards the effort. It also did not specify any members as initial targets or elaborate on how it would gauge the progress of the initiative, noting only that “we’ll be judged by those who we defeat.—

On the state level, 460 anti-abortion bills have been introduced in legislatures this year alone, says Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

“This is not just an inside-the-Beltway movement,— said David O’Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee. “When you see the pro-life movement stymied in one area, you turn around and it’s moving forward in another.—