Lessons From 1996: Remember Bob Dole?

While we’re all waiting for James Dobson to make up his mind whether to crown Mike Huckabee “Mr. GOP 2008,” let’s consider the last time the influential founder of Focus on the Family voted for a third party candidate: Anyone remember Howard Phillips?A decade ago, few people realized the grip that Dobson held over national Republican politics. Rather, when much of mainstream America considered Dobson, it was for his role as a folksy child psychologist with a radio show.

It was thus largely under the radar that, in 1996 every hopeful Republican candidate for president traveled to Colorado Springs — home to Dobson’s Focus on the Family, to kiss the ministry and media empire founder’s ring and seek his blessing. Former Kansas Senator Bob Dole, who eventually won the Republican nomination, even went to church with Dobson one spring Sunday morning, at First Presbyterian in downtown Colorado Springs.

But in the summer of 1996, at the Republican National Convention in San Diego, Dole did – at least in Dobson’s mind – the unthinkable. The GOP platform included a stance calling for abortion to be outlawed and included wording that could easily be translated to supporting the position that physicians could face criminal charges and jail time for performing abortions. 

Dole, along with many other mainstream Republicans, publicly claimed they hadn’t actually read the platform adopted by their own party. And guess who lost?

In 1998, in a speech before the conservative and ultra-secretive Council for National Policy, Dobson recalled the events of two years earlier. The long speech was later republished with permission by the Scott Wilder Show, a syndicated Christian radio program, during which Dobson recounted the “insult” of Dole.

In his speech, Dobson also hit on a very interesting statistic. In 1994, he claimed that 43 percent of the voters who turned out to put Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America on the map identified themselves as “conservative, evangelical, and pro-life.

Two years later, Dobson claimed, turnout for those self-described evangelical and pro-life voters had dropped to 29 percent in the 1996 presidential election.

“That 14 percent right there represented the difference between winning and losing in that election,” Dobson said. “Where’d they go?”

“Republicans said, `Now they don’t have any place to go. Where are they going to go?’ Well, some of them did go. Some of them voted for Bill Clinton, and some of them stayed home, and some of them, like myself, voted for another candidate. I voted for Howard Phillips, (applause) not because I was convinced Howard would make a great president. I don’t know that. I voted for him because he stands for the principles and the values that I believe in, and nobody else did.

By the way, Phillips was the chosen candidate for president in 1992 and 1996 of the U.S. Taxpayer Party, which is now the Constitution Party (for which he also was the nominee in 2000).

As he has been since 1974, Phillips is currently the chairman of The Conservative Caucus, which calls itself a non-partisan, nationwide grass-roots public policy advocacy group.

Click here for a related story about presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, the winner of a recent straw poll of so-called “values voters.”

Cara DeGette is a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential and a columnist and contributing editor at the Colorado Springs Independent. E-mail her at cdegette@coloradoconfidential.com