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The twilight of Dobson?

There’s a fascinating profile of Daddy Dobson in The Economist that argues the Focus on the Family honcho is losing his mojo, even as the 2008 GOP presidential wannabes stop to kiss his ring. The article is also a study of a fundie movement in crisis.

The religious right is in a dismal state at the moment. In 2004 social conservatives marched in lockstep behind a triumphant Republican Party. But two years later they lost a succession of high-profile races and ballot initiatives. And today they are desperately casting about for a like-minded presidential candidate. Mr Giuliani is too liberal, Mr Romney is too much of a flip-flopper, Mr McCain is too independent-minded, particularly on stem-cell research and a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. A recent meeting of the Council for National Policy, a secretive group of social conservatives, was reportedly a study in despair.

It’s clear that the whole movement is close to a shambles when Dobson wastes his time trying to prop up serial adulterer Newt Gingrich as a moral alternative to the current crop of announced candidates, but it’s no news that Daddy D has serious deficits as a master political tactician.

The problem is that Mr Dobson is not all that good at politics. He displays all the characteristic weaknesses of evangelical politicos-overreaching hopelessly and then blaming failure on want of political courage. He was the prime force behind both the fight to keep Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube in place and the push for a gay-marriage ban. But a majority of evangelicals disapproved of the first and a large number of his fellow social conservatives warned, rightly, that the second was a waste of effort.

There have been other miscalculations. He wasted political capital supporting Harriet Miers’s doomed nomination to the Supreme Court. He strongly opposed the 2006 Evangelical Climate Initiative. He accused SpongeBob SquarePants of participating in a “pro-homosexual video”. He argued that “The Da Vinci Code” “has all the evidence of something cooked up in the fires of hell” (wouldn’t it have been better written if it had been?). He compared Bill Frist’s call for increased federal funding for stem-cell research to Nazi experiments.

The piece goes on to note that Dobson, 70, has suffered both a heart attack and a stroke, and the average age of the folks on the FotF mailing list is 52. That doesn’t sound like an organization in renewal mode.

Right Wing Watch suggests that the heir to Dobson’s throne of influence is Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Land appears  to be becoming increasingly influential in shaping the GOP presidential primary, having already met privately with Sen. John McCain and Gov. Mitt Romney and making it clear that Rudy Giuliani is unacceptable.

And now, in what appears to be a direct challenge to Dobson, Land has come out against Dobson’s recent  effort to back Newt Gingrich and quash Fred Thompson’s potential candidacy.

Land has said of the L&O actor, “Fred Thompson reminds me of a Southern-fried Reagan. To see Fred work a crowd must be what it was like to watch Rembrandt paint.” And he doesn’t like Newt one iota — Land is another fundie who has no patience for adulterers, but even then he seems to split hairs given the GOP field this time around:

Land said he asks those conservatives how they can trust a candidate who has broken his marital vows in the past. “He lied to them; what makes you think he won’t lie to you?” Land said he asked.

Thompson is on his second marriage. But as Land explained, it is the circumstances that matter to evangelical voters. Thompson’s “amicable” divorce at a relatively young age is significantly different to a so-called values voter than the breakups of Gingrich and Giuliani. “That’s a very different circumstance than engaging in an adulterous affair while still married to your second wife,” Land said.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding