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Howard Phillips' World

Could the Constitution Party pick up the pieces of the GOP?

| Mon Nov. 3, 2008 3:00 AM EST
<p>Adding to the strife is the selection of Palin as McCain's running mate. Even as the pick elated the party's right wing, it has served to alienate the likes of Colin Powell, former Reagan administration official <a href="" target=" _blank">Ken Adelman, and Charles Fried, the former Reagan administration solicitor general, all of whom have endorsed Barack Obama, along with a string of elite conservative columnists.

For Phillips' purposes, that makes Palin this year's perfect pick. In the constellation of organizations Phillips either founded or cofounded, the most powerful by far is the Council for National Policy, an umbrella group of right-wing activists currently led, according to Phillips, by Becky Norton Dunlop, vice president for external relations for the Heritage Foundation. The CNP meets in secret closed-door sessions, most recently in St. Paul the weekend prior to the Republican National Convention. He told me that when news of the Palin pick came, the room erupted.

"They were hugging each other, they were screaming, they were so happy," Phillips said of the CNP members, who hail from the leadership of nearly every right-wing organization, religious and secular. "And I can understand why," he said, citing her comments upon the birth of her youngest child, Trig, who has Down syndrome. According to the Anchorage Daily News, "Palin said she was sad at first but they now feel blessed that God chose them."

Phillips does carry a bit of a torch for Palin, hoping she herself might someday abandon the GOP: "She is a person who has won the hearts of grassroots conservatives, and she might be the kind of person who would consider another course of action." That other course of action, in his view, would be to leave the Republican Party and run on the ticket of his Constitution Party, of which the secessionist Alaskan Independence Party is the state affiliate. Though Palin never belonged to the AIP, her husband, Todd, did register as a member for seven years, dropping the affiliation during his wife's unsuccessful 2002 run for lieutenant governor. Then, just a few months ago, the governor herself delivered a video greeting to the party's statewide convention, telling the assembled to "keep up the good work."

"If conservatives were smart, they would ditch [the Republican Party] and start over," Phillips told me in a phone interview this week from his Virginia office. "But it would take some visible leadership to do that, and you have a lot of people who see themselves as the Republican nominee four years hence who feel they've got an investment in the GOP."

As for himself, Phillips says, he'll stick with the outside game—even though it's left him, at 67, with little money, while his former White House colleagues (Phillips famously led a "defund the left" campaign from the Office of Economic Opportunity, which he headed during the Nixon administration) went on to successful corporate careers. Just two weeks ago, Phillips gathered with other former OEO colleagues at Vice President Dick Cheney's official residence, several multimillionaires—including Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—among them.

Yet Phillips holds out hope he may yet have the last laugh. In the event of a schism, he reasons, the faction of the GOP likely to fall to the Constitution Party is the faction with the ground operation—the evangelical churches and faith-based organizations that run the get-out-the-vote operation created through the organizing infrastructure created by Phillips and Richard Viguerie more than 30 years ago. But the establishment faction has its own assets. "They don't have the ground game, but they do control the party's money. The concentrated power in the party establishment. The question is, will people who have grassroots support consider a different strategy? Will the James Dobsons of the world consider starting fresh outside the GOP?"

Phillips said he's not optimistic that they will, though he does note that "the natives are restless" on the right. This presidential election, his Constitution Party will appear on the ballot in 38 states. The ticket has been endorsed by Ron Paul, the libertarian whose candidacy set online fundraising records but ultimately failed to draw votes in the Republican primary. Paul—and Obama, for that matter—also points the way to a new organizing paradigm for Phillips, who like Obama is well schooled in grassroots activism. (In the early days of the Conservative Caucus, which he launched in the 1970s, Phillips drove to each of the 435 congressional districts to recruit candidates and volunteers.) He's an astute student of the left; he's always quick to remind me that he subscribes to Mother Jones, and just about every other major progressive publication. The strategies he employed to build his movement were borrowed, he told Sidney Blumenthal in 1980, from Saul Alinsky, the community organizer whom Sarah Palin decries as the source of Barack Obama's socialist ideology.

If Phillips can set the wedge firmly enough in Republican constituencies, and help to damage a victorious Obama with the Corsi-Kincaid narrative, he's convinced that the Constitution Party could cause the GOP some headaches in 2012. "We have a lot of work to do," Phillips told me. "In many ways, the very likely Obama landslide is going to make it easy for us. And we're going to do our best to take advantage."

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