Social conservatives - the Christian Right and like-minded activists - are an unhappy group these days. They believe the Republican Party they helped bring to power in Congress has done little to advance their political agenda.
For them, "moral" issues are as important as, or more important than, fiscal and budgetary concerns. They want abortion banned, and until then seriously restricted. They want government support for the two-parent family, including abolishing the "marriage penalty" that makes some couples pay more income tax than if the two spouses were filing as singles. They want restoration of audible prayer in public schools and abolition of the National Endowment for the Arts.
But House and Senate Republicans have been unable to deliver. The core beliefs that unite the GOP are fiscal and political, not social and moral. Republicans generally agree on the need to rein in government spending and limit the size of the federal government. After that, their coalition quickly breaks down into its component regional and ideological parts.
In the House, Speaker Newt Gingrich was left with a meager 22-seat majority by the 1996 election. A mere 11 votes can defeat the leadership. Far more than 11 Republicans refuse to vote for social conservatives' cherished bills. Hard-core conservatives bolt if they think a bill too moderate. Gingrich is caught in the middle.
Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi has a firmer majority, but not the 60 votes needed to cut off debate. If Democrat minority leader Tom Daschle can hold the 45 Democrats together - something he's good at - he can block most legislation he doesn't like. If he can't, Democrats can count on President Clinton's veto.
That leaves many Republicans wondering why they should waste time and tarnish their image fighting bills Mr. Clinton won't sign. Social conservatives argue a need to draw clear distinctions between parties and energize the social-conservative base. That, of course, energizes the other side's base as well.
The stalemate has social conservatives now looking at the 2000 presidential race. They don't want a repeat of 1996, when their issues were downplayed in the campaign. The 2000 race already is under way. Steve Forbes, former Vice President Dan Quayle, Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council, and Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri all seek the Christian Right's vote for the GOP nomination. Mr. Ashcroft has effectively championed social-conservative issues in the Senate. He's been the most vocal Republican attacking Clinton, labeling the president a "sexual predator." His rhetoric appears to have earned him an early lead with this activist GOP constituency.
The Republican leaders' dilemma is that they can't win without these voters but fear being labeled extremist. They therefore seek a way to hold the social conservatives without driving the moderate middle of US politics into the arms of the Democrats. That's a tall order. It probably means Gingrich and Lott will call up bills dear to social conservatives even though it's clear the bills don't have the votes to become law. That risks handing Clinton and the Democrats more weapons to use against the GOP next November.