WORLD

Time for a good house cleaning

The godfather of conservative activism is planning a revolution

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE November 27 2006
WORLD

Time for a good house cleaning

The godfather of conservative activism is planning a revolution

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE November 27 2006

Time for a good house cleaning

The godfather of conservative activism is planning a revolution

WORLD

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE

Imagine for a moment that you are a legendary conservative activist who has just watched the Republican party lose both houses of Congress. Do you crawl into your bed and weep under the covers? Not if you are Richard Viguerie, the godfather of direct-mail fundraising, who over four decades nurtured the conservative movement by raising billions of dollars for candidates, one contribution at a time.

“Invigorated” is how Viguerie, 73, describes himself in the aftermath of the election. The defeat of the Republican Congress—a high-spending, deficit-expanding and pork-loving Republican Congress—is an opportunity for conservative activists to “take back the Republican party,” he says. It’s one that has come three times in his lifetime—with the Republican presidential nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994. Viguerie is planning the next wave.

While the victorious

Democrats may believe they won the election—they have a one-seat majority in the Senate and at least an 11-seat majority in the House—conservative activists like Viguerie believe Republicans lost it by straying from conservative principles—in economics, foreign policy and ethics. Viguerie had long been calling for such a reckoning. He says the GOP had to relearn that, “when conservatives are angry, bad things happen to the Republican party.” And boy, are they angry. “The anger among conservatives is palpable,” Viguerie says. “You can cut it with a knife, it’s so thick.” He even wrote a book about it: Conservatives Betrayed: How George

W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause. His bottom line is that Republicans cannot increase federal spending by 38 per cent from 2000 to 2005 and expect to get re-elected.

Conservatives hope to channel that anger into an organizational, intellectual and cultural renaissance. Fundraising will be easier, they predict. “It’s always easier to organize a movement when the opposition is perceived to be in power. It was very tough the last six years where Republicans controlled everything,” says Viguerie. The same could be said for pop culture. Iconic conservative forums such as Rush Limbaugh’s radio talk show and the conservative American Spectator magazine, founded in the 1960s, flourished during the Clinton years. “My board of directors couldn’t be happier,” admits R. Emmett Tyrell, the magazine’s founder and editor. “The Clinton years were good years. With Hillary coming up again on the horizon, I think the first part of the 21st century will be good too.” On Comedy Central, could the conservative persona of Stephen Colbert be in for a better run than the liberal-leaning Jon Stewart? “You’ll see all the conservative publications do better, and groups like mine will raise more money,” says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative lobby group that asks all candidates to sign a pledge not to raise taxes. Norquist adds: “I’m on the board of the National Rifle Association—our activities and fundraising always fall when we are successful.” But it’s cold comfort, he adds. “I’d rather have the majority,” says Norquist, noting that only four Democrats signed his tax pledge.

The first item of business for such “movement conservatives” is to persuade the GOP minority and the White House not to embark

CONSERVATIVES’ ANGER IS SO PALPABLE, ‘YOU CAN CUT IT WITH A KNIFE’

on accommodation with the Democratie majority. They are pushing the GOP caucus to elect ideologically pure minority leaders, and for George W. Bush to shelf his recent talk of bipartisanship. “It’s definitely an opportunity,” says David Keating, executive director of the Club for Growth, a group that raises money for fiscally conservative candidates. “The entire Republican caucus really needs to do some serious thinking and analysis of why we lost. Republicans lost their brand because they abandoned the principles behind the brand.” The Club for Growth carried out a poll in 15 key congressional districts that showed voters identifying Democrats as doing a better job of “eliminating wasteful spending” than Republicans, and suggested that more voters (39 per cent) identified

profile in Time magazine pictured him with two washing-machine-sized IBM computers containing mailing “hit lists” that allowed him to raise, back then, $115,000 dollars “almost overnight,” and to target muscular campaigns against nuclear arms reduction treaties, for example.

Now Viguerie is calling for ideological purification on websites with names like conservativesbetrayed.com and conservative hq.com. And he plans to build another fundraising empire, this time online, using websites that “micro-target” specific niches with names that would be along the lines of “conservativesagainstthewar.com” (he was opposed to the invasion of Iraq) and “conservativesagainstimmigrantamnesty.com,” for example. “It’s going to be serious—we’re talk-

THE CURRENT LEADERSHIP, SAYS VIGUERIE, IS BEYOND SAVING

ers had passed away.” The current leadership, from the White House on down, is beyond saving, he says. “Most of the Republican office holders, including the President, campaigned as if Washington was a cesspool. They all said, ‘Elect me and I will clean up the pool, the culture of corruption and abuse of power.’ And it was true. But then when they got here, after a period of time they became that which they beheld. So the cesspool, to many if not most, turned from cesspool to a hot tub,” he says. “They lost their way.” After labouring in the movement’s backrooms for 40 years, Viguerie is planning to step out and lead a counter-reformation. A political science major from Pasadena, Texas, he was an advertising man who started direct-mail fundraising to small individual contributors for conservative causes back in 1965, to end-run what he calls big-donor “fat cats.” He set up shop in Falls Church, Va., and over 40 years mailed out what he estimates to be over two billion letters. A 1979

Republicans as the “Party of Big Government” than Democrats (28 per cent). “We’re going to do what we can to minimize the damage in Congress. We are going to push the Republicans to pick new leadership,” Keating says.

But for Viguerie, the task is bigger than who will serve as minority leader. He sees the moment in grand historical terms, comparing conservatives to “the Biblical Jews who had to wander through the desert for 40 years until that generation of immoral, corrupt lead-

ing about taking over the Republican party,” Viguerie says. “I expect to give MoveOn a run for their money,” he adds, referring to the incredibly successful liberal online fundraising and advocacy network.

He says he is prepared for a long, long slogeven beyond the 2008 presidential race. “I urge conservatives to withhold support from all the 2008 wannabes because none of them are worthy of conservative support,” he explains. “Let’s have a bidding war. Let’s have them come to us and say what they are going to do for conservatives.” And what if they don’t? “It may be they don’t have a viable candidate, and I’m okay with that. This is a marathon, not a sprint.” But at age 73, does he have time for marathons? “My dad lived to be 96, so the left is going to have me to put up with for another 20 years,” he chuckles. “Liberals unborn are going to battle me.” M

ON THE WEB: Visit Luiza Ch. Savage’s blog at www.macleans.ca/luizasavage