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There's a country-club feel to the lobby of the Renaissance Esmerelda Hotel in the California town of Indian Wells near Palm Springs. The place is a winter golfing draw, so bags of clubs are carried through by bellmen and guests. But golfers' shirts and cleats are outnumbered by the blue blazers of Republican Party national committee members, at least for this weekend. The party stalwarts have come to California to quash a rebellion.
Texan Tim Lambert moves through the lobby with the ease of an old political hand, matching smiles and waves and quick-grips of other committee members. He wears a gray suit and round-rim wire-frame glasses, fitting in perfectly well; but this homeschooling father of four (and president of the Texas Home School Coalition) is leading the rebellion.
He has brought a resolution to deny party funding to Republican candidates who refuse to support a ban on partial-birth abortion. RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson has marshalled every weapon available to defeat the resolution, which he says will shrink the hallowed Big Tent and leave pro-aborts such as New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman out in the cold. But Mr. Lambert's not afraid of a floor fight; in fact, he's not even afraid of losing the vote (though he privately expects to). The revolution he's leading won't happen in Indian Wells, he explains; this is just the first step in what he hopes will be a conservative retaking of the Republican Party.
It's Friday morning, and Mr. Lambert is overtaken by a big man in a blue suit. Alec Poitevint, RNC treasurer and a committee member from Georgia, gives him a winning smile when Mr. Lambert presses him for a commitment on the upcoming vote. "I'm absolutely, absolutely opposed to partial-birth abortion," Mr. Poitevint says. "You can count on that."
Which means, of course, that Mr. Lambert should not count on his vote. Mr. Lambert watches him walk away. "If I hear, 'I'm against partial birth abortion, but ...' one more time," he says softly, "I'm going to throw up."
Mr. Lambert lost this time around, though it took lots of private arm-twisting by the Republican Leadership. But the primary objective never was to win this vote. RNC chairman Jim Nicholson, a Colorado native, need only have looked to the nearby state of Texas to see this. Five years ago, Mr. Lambert helped lead a similar conservative revolt within the ranks of the Republican Party of Texas.
"In 1993, cultural conservatives couldn't get a committee chairman elected," Mr. Lambert said in a rare quiet moment, slumping into a couch in a corner of the huge lobby.
"Lots of people say the right things, but we were learning that the truth is in the voting," he said. "So many of us [social conservatives] were ready to walk. We just weren't welcome."
So Mr. Lambert brought forth a resolution at the state convention to deny funding for candidates who don't support the party platform (example: Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has a mixed record on abortion, but did support the override of President Clinton's partial-birth abortion veto). Conservatives lost the vote, but they identified the moderates. Then quietly, steadily over the next year, conservatives began running for the seats held by those moderates, and by the summer of 1994 they looked around to find they held a majority of about 60 percent. The fruit was borne when the state party chairmanship came open, and conservative Christian Tom Pauken beat out Joe Barton (the former congressman) for the seat.
"We won," Mr. Lambert explains of the Texas resolution's defeat. "It wasn't about who would win the floor vote. It was about control of the party."
His goal in California on this weekend was to identify RNC moderates, so that conservatives can challenge them before the primaries in the year 2000. He's out to prevent a repeat of the choosing of a candidate such as Bob Dole, who went out of his way to attack social conservatives such as Family Research Council head Gary Bauer. "These guys don't understand that lip service isn't enough," he says of the moderates on abortion now in control of the party. "Leadership isn't lip service, it's not position, it's action. There is such a thing as party discipline."
Phyllis Schlafly was one of Mr. Lambert's few dedicated allies in Palm Springs. She deftly parried questions from a CBS reporter during the break. "The fracture is already there," she answers. "The 'big mistake' is further alienating the grass roots of the Republican party. Whatever happens, this will not be a defeat for principles-we're making people stand and be counted. Abortion isn't the only issue in this resolution; there's also the issue of who's going to control the Republican party. There's the issue of the arrogance of the moderates."
Lest anyone should be unclear on his directions, a few minutes later, House Speaker Newt Gingrich took the luncheon podium to twist some arms verbally. "This debate is legitimate," he said. "It's legitimate for any special-interest group to raise an issue it feels passionately about."
Mr. Lambert's anger rose; since when were pro-life conservatives a "special interest" within the Republican party? Tight-lipped, Mr. Gingrich invoked Ronald Reagan's "11th commandment": Thou shalt not speak ill of other Republicans. Mr. Lambert shook his head.
At the next break, Lynn Grefe, who heads the Republican Pro-Choice Political Action Committee, was out among the press flouting that commandment, using the Left's best word-weapons: litmus tests, Radical Right, blacklisting, excommunication, extremists. She handed out jet-black folders containing clippings to make her case. In this info-pack are lists of the candidates pro-aborts proudly support: William Weld, ex-Massachusetts governor and quashed nominee to become Bill Clinton's ambassador to Mexico; Brooks Firestone, the tire-company heir and pro-abortion assemblyman defeated in a congressional primary by pro-life assemblyman Tom Bordonaro; New Jersey Gov. Whitman; Vermont Sen. John Chafee.
Then the floor debate on Mr. Lambert's resolution began. But there was one more speaker: Henry Hyde had been brought in as an emergency measure. "I am committed to stopping partial-birth abortion," the long-time Illinois congressman stated. "It's time we talked about it. We as a party were inept in the last two [presidential] campaigns. We were timid."
As his speech unfolded, however, Henry Hyde sounded less like the lion who fought for the Hyde Amendment that limits federal funding of abortions, and more like the strategist who, during an Aug. 6, 1996, meeting at the Republican National Convention, defended Bob Dole's attempt to water down the abortion plank in the Republican Party platform.
The two roles, though, are not mutually exclusive: "You win elections by addition, not subtraction," Mr. Hyde said.
Just before the debate took place, RNC chairman Nicholson didn't let mere parliamentary procedure sway the vote; as he announced the debate open, he loomed over the podium microphone and made his own speech. Mr. Nicholson praised the Democrats who turned Republican "because the party left them," quoting Ronald Reagan's words. But the lesson he drew was not one of sticking to principle; his lesson was that parties shouldn't exclude those who disagree with them. "A house divided against itself cannot stand," he said, looking disturbingly pleased when even some in the press area joined in the applause.
Mr. Nicholson promised: "We can end partial-birth abortion and we will."
But how? Mr. Lambert opposes paying for the campaigns of candidates who are committed to allowing the practice to continue, but Mr. Nicholson argued that the GOP needs pro-aborts to retain its majority in Congress and then stick it to President Clinton for his two vetoes of partial-birth abortion legislation. In other words, forget the splinter in Republican eyes; first, deal with the Clintonian logjam. "I hope we can show the spirit of Ronald Reagan, who challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, that the party he loves won't begin building new walls."
Moments later, Mr. Nicholson opened the floor to debate of the resolution and a crippling amendment. He led Michigan committee member Betsy DeVos to the podium microphone to make her case; Mr. Lambert was restricted to the microphone on the floor. "I guess we're all 'the party establishment,'" Mrs. DeVos said. "And everyone here is against the horrendous procedure known as partial-birth abortion."
Her speech was conciliatory; don't go away mad, she seemed to tell conservatives. The amendment she offered took out the enforcement language and any mention of denying funding to candidates who won't vote to ban partial-birth abortion.
When it was Mr. Lambert's turn, his voice was even and calm. He cited the "lack of leadership" in the party, a charge that won him no new friends here. Throughout his speech, Mr. Nicholson frowned at him from the podium. He sat down.
"We must have the Big Tent theory," insisted the next speaker, Garabed Haytaian, the state chairman from New Jersey. "Today the litmus test is partial-birth abortion; tomorrow it might be the death penalty; next, no Armenians will be allowed in the party."
The debate continued for better than an hour; when it ended, Mr. Nicholson denied Mr. Lambert's request for a roll-call vote (he had made that promise earlier in the week, Mr. Lambert says). Mr. Nicholson, confident he had the majority, forced Mr. Lambert to make a motion calling for the roll-call; it was defeated. A roll-call vote would have put committee members on the record; nevertheless, when delegates stood to indicate their ayes or nays, Mr. Lambert and his allies wrote it all down.
As CNN reported live and other news outlets related the next day-and analyzed throughout the weekend-Mrs. DeVos's amendment, which gutted the resolution while at the same time sternly denouncing partial-birth abortion, carried 114-43. And when the now rhetorical resolution came up for a vote moments later, it passed with only one vote against: Mr. Lambert's.
A few minutes later, after the obligatory press interviews and condolences from a few sympathetic Republicans, Mr. Lambert took the elevator to his fifth-floor room. Before he took off his jacket, even, he sat down and picked up the phone to call his wife.
"We won," he told her. "We got it to a floor vote. It failed, of course, but there was a stand-up vote. And we had plenty of people taking notes."