When biographers are interviewed about George H.W. Bush, they often emphasize that he was more interested in governing than in campaigning. In the 1992 debates, he famously looked at his watch as if he would rather be somewhere else. In First to the Party, I show that he made a lot of commitments to the Christian Right during the 1988 election and underestimated the need to follow through on these commitments. He had arguably manipulated the Christian Right by taking on their language without being willing to fully commit himself to their agenda in office. The price he paid for doing so, I argue, ultimately vindicates the UCLA Theory of Parties’ role for “intense policy demanders.”
The UCLA Theory of Parties contends that candidates win nominations by obtaining the support of networks of controversial policy demanders, rather than more numerous moderate, dispersed voters. These policy demanders provide volunteers, endorsements, donations, and word-of-mouth networking. Candidates can win by catering to less numerous but more extreme votes because more typical voters are less active and less attentive. While voters sometimes notice candidate extremism, they have a “blind spot” in which they do not notice some of the more extreme commitments candidates make. Candidates have to be careful to win intense policy demander support in the blind spot of the public.
One group of intense policy demanders in 1988 was the Christian Right. Only after religious broadcaster Pat Robertson performed well in a 1986 contest in Michigan did Bush’s campaign strategist, Lee Atwater, see the need to win over the Christian Right. Atwater’s original electoral strategy – still sealed the last time I visited the George H.W. Bush library – was a primarily secular strategy that lined up Republican officeholder endorsements. Atwater was not familiar with conservative Christians, so he turned to an evangelical spy novelist on the campaign, Doug Wead. Wead had been correctly predicting a televangelist candidacy all along, and was regarded as a seer after Robertson’s performance.
Just as the UCLA Theory of Parties emphasizes that candidates make controversial commitments to “intense policy demanders” in the “blind spot” of the public, Wead advised Bush to obtain endorsements from Christian Right leaders in 1986 and 1987 when the public was less likely to notice. Although Bush was a mainline Episcopalian, Wead said that emphasizing theological commonalities would go a long way towards obtaining support without taking too many controversial political stances.
Bush was coached on how to convey the impression that he was “one of them.” Bush read C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, and learned to send subtle signals that would not attract public attention. When Christian Right leaders asked Bush if he had a born-again experience in 1979, Bush answered with a curt “no,” perhaps thinking it was an inappropriate question. Wead suggested telling Christians instead that “I have accepted Jesus as my personal savior,” but admit that he had not had a dramatic, life-changing event. Since many evangelical Christians had children who had not undergone a life-changing experience, they were receptive to such a statement. If asked about contradicting what he said in 1979, Bush would answer that he misunderstood the question and thought that only a dramatic life-changing event counted.
Before it was common to refer to campaign signals as “dog whistles,” Bush would meet publicly with relatively nonpolitical evangelical Christians as well, including athletes. The hope was that evangelical Christians would receive the signal but ordinary voters would not object. Bush made an appearance on Robert Schuller’s uncontroversial “Hour of Power” television show. Bush did obtain public support with the controversial Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, but only to demonstrate to other evangelical Christians that he was not being opportunistic. (It was not a difficult choice for Falwell, an independent Baptist, to endorse Bush over Robertson; Robertson was a commercial rival and a Pentecostal. The Christian Right was still working hard to overcome sectarian differences.)
After Bush obtained an impressive line up of endorsements, many Christian Right leaders realized they made a mistake. Bush failed to give the right answer for Mega church pastor D. James Kennedy’s litmus test question in 1986:
“D. James Kennedy asked Bush the question he used to screen Reagan and John Connally: what he would answer if God asked why he should be given eternal life? Bush said he “had been a good person, that I had tried my best to be kind to others, to be fair and truthful.” Kennedy “blinked in amazement” and “the color drained from the face of Jerry Falwell,” who announced two weeks later at a press conference that he was leaving politics. Evangelicals believe that Jesus died for mankind’s sins and one gains salvation through his sacrifice, so long as one accepts Jesus by faith. When pressed, Bush replied, “You can’t tell me that a good Muslim or Hindu who is sincerely trying to do his best is going to be rejected just because he doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ?” While the attendees realized they misjudged Bush, they had already publicized their support, and were unwilling to lose face with their followers.” (From First to the Party, p. 181)
Once Bush wrapped up the nomination after Super Tuesday, Bush even dismissed the New Right’s Ed McAteer from his campaign. In considering whether to attend other Christian Right events, Wead unequivocally advised the campaign that “Super Tuesday is over. It is not necessary to risk association with these controversial ministries at this time.” At the 1988 convention, the Bush campaign did not want to alienate the Christian Right by leaving out its leaders, but it also did not want them to attract public attention. The campaign’s calculated strategy was to invite them and keep them busy in meetings all day, which would also deprive them of time to talk to the press.
In office, Bush disappointed the Christian Right at several junctures. His FCC chair did nothing to stop shock jocks like Howard Stern. More importantly, Bush refused to fire the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) chair for publicly funding what the Christian Right considered obscene and sacrilegious art. The leaders had mostly assimilated economic conservatives’ opposition to higher taxes and Bush broke his “No New Taxes” pledge.
Had Bush convinced the Christian Right of his religious sincerity, he may have had more room to maneuver around these policies. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush disappointed the Christian Right at times, but leaders were convinced they were fundamentally on their side, and would push forward their agenda when possible. But unlike them, George H.W. Bush was seen as opportunistic. An alternative approach to winning Christian Right support has been to focus on more aggressively deliver policy victories and attacking its most loathed opponents, as Donald Trump has. Bush hadn’t offered religious sincerity, policy victories, or loud attacks on the left.
To deflect Pat Buchanan’s challenge in 1992, Bush had to rebrand himself as more conservative during an election year. He fired the NEA chairman. At the Houston Convention, the campaign gave the Christian Right everything it wanted in the 1992 platform, including several controversial planks against gay rights. Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan were given prime time speaking slots to share their unedited and controversial remarks on Bill Clinton’s attack on family values. In the general election, Bush spoke at Liberty University and the Christian Coalition’s convention. All of this attracted media attention that Doug Wead would have cringed at. (Wead had been dismissed from an administration position, though he later became an advisor to George W. Bush).
Bush might have lost the election of 1992 anyway, with a barely recovering economy and a third party challenge from H. Ross Perot. But his miscalculations with the Christian Right cost him.
While one might make an argument that candidates can “play” intense policy demanders with lip service and still win elections, the first Bush administration serves as a cautionary tale. Looking at both his election and reelection campaigns, one sees that in the long run, luring in and then backing away from the Christian Right was a strategic blunder. Instead of lining up enthusiastic Christian Right support in 1988 who would stand by him in tough times, he had a group of leaders who were merely afraid of losing face by publicly recanting support. Instead of signaling support with policies in office, he had to send an loud signal during his reelection campaign. Because he failed to win the unwavering loyalty of his intense policy demanders, he risked leaving the public’s blind spot. “Playing” the Christian Right was a shortcut that wound up being the longest way around.