THE PLANK FEBRUARY 8, 2008
Once upon a time, James Dobson mattered in politics. He ruled the sprawling Focus on the Family empire, wielded massive power behind the scenes, but rarely waded into races with an actual endorsement. This approach seemed to work pretty well for him. Much of America didn't know his name, but among members of his evangelical flock--and, by extension, the Republican pols who court that flock--he commanded respect if not outright fear.
But in recent years, whether because he started feeling cocky or insecure, Dr. Dobson has gotten more aggressively big-p political. In the 2004 elections, he was credited both with helping boost evangelical turnout for George W. (whom he personally endorsed) and with lending a hand in ousting then-Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (whom he had targeted for defeat). But he also lost a high-profile battle against Republican Sen. Arlen Specter. And then, in the 2006 races, he failed to oust any of his prime Senate targets, including Ben Nelson, Robert Byrd, Kent Conrad, Jeff Bingaman, and Bill Nelson.
For this presidential cycle, Dobson began an early, unseemly flirtation with Newt Gingrich. (The interview in which Dobson guided Newtie in a public profession of repentance for his repeated infidelities and then kinda, sorta granted him absolution was a grotesque moment in religio-political theater.) Alas, Newt opted not to run and Dobson was left with, in his eyes, a morally unsatisfying Republican field. (Of course, once you have your heart set on that paragon of moral virtue Newt, who else could possibly compare?) For months, he scorned the advances of Mike Huckabee, provoking great frustration in the Southern Baptist preacher turned pol.
But now, at what sure seems like the 11th hour, with the GOP field cleared of everyone save Huck and John Bane-of-the-Base McCain, Dobson has decided to endorse Huck, and has said that he would sit home rather than pull the lever for the foul-mouthed McCain.
This seems an odd move, even considering how eye-bulging insane McCain's success is driving many on the right. Dobson is a savvy guy; he almost certainly doesn't expect Huck to emerge the victor--barring divine intervention, of course. (Although, this year, I suppose nothing is out of the question.) So presumably he's trying to send a message to both his followers and the GOP. But what, exactly? Is he hoping to make some point about his moral incorruptibility when it comes to politics? Unlikely, considering he was itching to slow-dance with Newt.
The more likely explanation is that he wants to be on record as working toward McCain's defeat, with an eye toward spending the next four years blaming a Clinton or Obama presidency on the GOP's abandoning its base. Then maybe next time the party will listen to him.
Of course, if McCain winds up winning, it could be an awfully long four (maybe eight?) years in the wilderness for the good doctor.