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The National Journal

November 11, 1989

In from the Cold


SECTION: REPORTS; Politics; Vol. 21, No. 45; Pg. 2746

LENGTH: 3409 words

The thaw in the Cold War has thinned the ranks and sapped the vitality of some groups on the political Right that specialize in national security issues.

It used to be "one of the titans," a conservative activist said of the American Security Council (ASC), a grass-roots organization on the political Right that specializes in defense and foreign policy issues. But as the Cold War has thawed, many of these groups have seen their ranks thinned and some of their vitality sapped.

Plans have already been shelved for "EAGLENET," a national computer network intended to alert ASC members to forthcoming votes in Congress on important national security issues so that they could contact their Members of Congress in Washington. The organization's political action committee (PAC), which doled out $ 226,888 in contributions five years ago, has been terminated. And at the end of October, the land surrounding the ASC estate and conference facility in Boston, Va., was approved for sale to real estate developers to bolster the council's finances.

"I think I can speak for most of us in the grass roots: We've been affected financially and legislatively by the glasnost era," said Gregg Hilton, executive director of the ASC, a prodefense lobby whose membership rolls have shrunk from approximately 300,000 in 1985 to about 150,000 today.

Like other conservative groups, the staunchly anti-Communist, grass-roots national security organizations began to experience some decline during Ronald Reagan's first term as President. The defense buildup he initiated and the tougher U.S. line in arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union lowered the level of concern among some rank-and-file conservatives about U.S. resolve. "The perception was that Reagan had solved all the problems on national defense," said Bruce W. Eberle, a Vienna (Va.) direct-mail fundraising specialist whose clients have included conservative grass-roots defense and foreign policy organizations.

But Reagan's support for anti-Communist insurgencies around the globe and his public skepticism about the Soviet Union's intentions and its protracted military occupation of Afghanistan continued to fuel the passions of conservative activists and donors. "At least you could rally the troops fairly consistently around Reagan," Eberle said.

Rallying the troops became even more difficult, however, toward the end of Reagan's second term. The President struck a deal with then-House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, effectively neutralizing the Nicaraguan contras and held summit meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev that led to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. In the same period, Soviet troops began to pull out of Afghanistan.

The factors at home and abroad that have dampened conservative fires don't appear to be changing. Except for a few hard-liners on the Right, conservatives are not ready to split with President Bush over national security issues and are happy for now with Bush's hesitancy about rushing into new agreements with the Soviet Union.

Conservatives aren't likely to get much -- not even rhetoric -- from Bush that would help to energize their troops. Pro-contra activist Peter T. Flaherty, chairman of the Conservative Campaign Fund PAC, noted that Reagan often framed a foreign policy debate "as us against them and conservatives against liberals who were apologists for the Soviet Union. George Bush doesn't perceive it that way."

The Chinese government's sudden and strong-handed crackdown on an indigenous democracy movement in June is a good reason for being skeptical of the prospects for real political changes in a Communist country, conservatives say. Gorbachev, they note, could always be toppled by hard-liners in the Kremlin. But with conservatives' fondest dreams being the collapse of Communist regimes, the images of democratic reform within the Soviet bloc seen almost nightly on television probably diminish the threat that some perceive from the Soviet Union. "Out in the grass roots, you can't say, 'The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming,' because they aren't," a conservative activist said.
Buoyed by the sale of its property, the ASC is preparing to launch a TV series that would emphasize a wide range of national security issues, including space policy and drugs. But most organizations can't sell off part of the family farm, so to speak, whenever they get into a cash crunch. Take High Frontier, a Washington-based grass-roots group whose goal is to promote the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and space exploration in general. With donations down about 15 percent from last year, it has been forced to put some of its staff on a part-time schedule.

"We've had to tighten our belts a little bit," High Frontier executive director Daniel O. Graham Jr. said. He said his group's receipts may be off not only because of the public's impression of a less hostile Soviet Union, but also because much of its financial support comes from the Southwest, where the oil-based economy has not fully recovered. Graham said High Frontier's budget this year will be "about a million dollars," down from a $ 1.4 million operating budget in the 1983-84 period. Graham also said that direct-mail funds account for about half of the group's revenue, with the rest coming from large personal contributions and from some foundation and corporate sources.

The American Space Frontier Committee PAC, whose chairman, retired Army Gen. Daniel O. Graham (the father of the High Frontier director), is also chairman of High Frontier, raised $ 521,728 but distributed only $ 20,100 to federal candidates in the 1988 elections. Through June of this year, the PAC took in only $ 40,411, less than a third of what it had raised by this time in the previous two election cycles. It also had $ 96,934 in debts.
But that looks like a modest problem compared with what's facing the pro-defense National Security PAC. That was the group that had made almost $ 8.2 million in independent expenditures on behalf of Bush's presidential campaign last year, in part to broadcast TV commercials that hit hard at the failure of the Massachusetts prison furlough inmate Willie Horton. Although the National Security PAC raised more than $ 10 million on its way to being the top PAC spender in the 1988 elections, Federal Election Commission reports show that the group had only $ 14,751 on hand and almost $ 1.2 million in debts at the end of August.

Some direct-mail industry observers suggest that the National Security PAC may now have difficulty raising money with appeals related to national security issues. That's because the group, though it may have a big mailing list of contributors to its 1988 program, raised its money that year in Bush's name and may not have established its own identity with contributors. Moreover, to the extent that the PAC's 1988 role is recalled, it may be in connection with crime issues and not defense.

National Security PAC executive director Elizabeth I. Fediay defended her group's 1988 program and contended that most of its direct-mail literature dealt with national defense. She also said that the organization paid for a defense-related advertisement that appeared on cable TV stations in Florida and Ohio toward the end of the campaign. And retired Rear Adm. C. A. Hill Jr., a senior adviser to the PAC, said candidates' positions on defense issues would be the "bottom line" on whether they received any contributions from the PAC.

With defense issues ranking low on the list of Americans' concerns right now, a defense-related pitch to the PAC's past donors may not be successful. "We're thinking about structuring a program around community involvement in the drug issue," Fediay said of one of her group's future projects. "That is certainly a national security issue."
In addition to the lagging direct-mail receipts, another source of revenue that has dried up for a few of the grass-roots defense and foreign policy groups is corporate support from military contractors.

The Institute for the Common Defense, for example, which relied heavily on this sector as a source of income, has apparently folded. The group was formed in 1987 and, according to a report in The Washington Post on June 30, had planned to establish a million-dollar PAC and conduct a pro-defense public education campaign. Several major defense contractors pitched in hundreds of thousands of dollars for the project with the expectation that the institute would develop a broad-based constituency for defense programs and with the hope that the contributions would please some of the institute's congressional sponsors who sit on key defense authorizing and appropriating committees.

But "for it to represent a grass-roots view, there had to be more than defense contractors giving," said Michael I. Burch, vice president for public relations of McDonnell Douglas Corp., a contributor. When the institute didn't establish a strong appeal beyond the boardrooms, Burch said, "I think the corporate support dropped out from underneath it." He said the companies that gave saw their funds only as "seed money" for the group.
A senior public affairs officer for a major aerospace company, who requested anonymity, said defense contractors sometimes feel the need to give money to these grass-roots defense groups because "they're very good at latching themselves onto a member of the Armed Services Committees, and people get concerned that this guy is keeping a scorecard" of contributors to the group.

He recalled that in the early 1980s, when the ASC "had access to the White House," several chief executive officers of defense companies were invited to a meeting there and were lobbied by Reagan Administration officials to contribute to the ASC. The defense budget was growing rapidly at the time, and "everybody felt they should be supportive," he said.

But now, with the slowdown in defense spending and with corporate priorities ranging from defense procurement issues to the educational deficiencies of the work force, defense contractors are less likely to be interested in supporting groups, with an ideological bent. "I think these organizations have got some major challenges in how they package their message," the public affairs officer said.

Because of the President's ability to focus the news media's attention on an issue and set the terms of its debate, the White House can play an important role in establishing a favorable climate for conservative grass-roots defense and foreign policy groups.

"A couple of years ago, we might have had two or three prospecting mailings going on," said Stepen R. Edelen, executive vice president of the Council for Inter-American Security (CIS). More recently, he said, his group has had a "falloff" in recruiting new members. "We don't have a President on national television helping frame some of the crucial foreign policy battles," Edelen said.

Even though it was supported by foundation funds, the Center for Peace and Freedom, which existed primarily to mobilize public support for SDI, has suspended some of its activities because of some doubts about the Administration's commitment to the antimissile program. The center's officers perceived weaker White House leadership on SDI under Bush than under Reagan and concluded that the resources used to promote SDI at the grass roots could be better spent boosting SDI in other ways.
Not all of the grass-roots groups are in decline, but the ones that aren't, while still staunchly anti-Communist, seem to stress issues that go beyond the traditional appeal of fending off the Soviet threat. Edelen's CIS focuses on the importance of building democratic institutions in Central America and plans to highlight the issue of Cuban and Nicaraguan involvement in the drug trade. "Congress is tired of the contra issue to a certain degree after many dozen votes on their situation in the last few years," CIS research director David Hershman said before the latest uproar over the Nicaraguan government's announcement that it was terminating a preelection ceasefire with the contras.

The American Defense Foundation, which got about half of its funds from direct mail and the rest from foundations for last year's $ 2.2 million budget, runs programs, among others, that encourage military personel and dependents to vote and that look into the possible fate of prisoners of war in Vietnam who are unaccounted for. "We draw people that others cannot because we work on that issue," president Eugene (Red) McDaniel said. "If you are a single issue, you'd be dead."

Energy security and international environmental problems, for example, are among the issues on the agenda of the 35,000-member National Defense Council. Though SDI and contra aid are still important issues and helped build the conservative movement, these "were issues that peaked in 1986," council president Milton R. Copulos said.

With the appearance of a more benign Soviet Union, some of the conservative grass-roots groups are modifying the way they portray the Soviet threat and U.S. competition with that superpower. "We no longer say that we are seeking an overall superiority over the Soviet Union," the ASC's Hilton said. "We don't use the word superiority."

And in High Frontier's latest video production promoting SDI, "One Incoming" (written by novelist Tom Clancy), the plot centers around what is presumed to be an accidental launch of a Soviet missile aimed at the United States. "We are emphasizing the most realistic threat, and that is accidental launch," said retired Army Maj. Gen. J. Milnor Roberts, president of High Frontier's lobbying arm. Earlier High Frontier productions, Roberts said, touted SDI as a necessary deterrent against an offensive Soviet nuclear missile force.

"Have we changed our tone? I guess it's now more one of caution," said conservative direct-mail specialist Ann E. W. Stone, president of Ann E. W. Stone Associates Inc., in Alexandria. Va.
For many conservatives, the newest hemispheric concern is ironically, one of their oldest: the situation in Panama. Doubts about Bush's handling of the abortive coup there last month have revived conservatives' worries about the security of the Panama Canal. Some of the defense and foreign policy groups report a positive response to their direct-mail solicitations on Panama.

In the mid-1970s, opposition to the Panama Canal Treaties, which the Senate approved in 1978, was a productive rallying point for conservatives. When the American Conservative Union was a leader in the effort to marshal public sentiment against the treaties, it had about 750,000 donors on its membership rolls. Today, it has only about 60,000 members.
Gen. Manuel A. Noriega demonstrated, through his bloody reprisals after the failed coup, that he will never give up power in Panama easily. But even though many conservatives initially said that Bush should have ordered some sort of U.S. intervention to topple Noriega, some spokesmen for conservative groups suggest that they may be able to live with the Panamanian strongman as long as the U.S. flag flies over the canal. "The traditional conservative position is not Wilsonian, to bring democracy to the world," said Donald J. Devine, chairman of Citizens for America, a conservative grass-roots lobby. "Basically, conservatives would be satisfied to occupy the Canal Zone forever and let Noriega do what he wants as long as he does not step over that line," Devine said.

Another new issue that the Right may exploit is whether the United States should provide credits or loans to the East Bloc and the Soviet Union to encourage the pace of political and economic reforms behind the Iron Curtain. Conservative Caucus chairman Howard J. Phillips blasted that idea in a recent speech as a "suicidal game for our government to be playing." Phillips sees such aid as serving only to strengthen Gorbachev's authority by unnecessarily removing economic pressures on his regime.

Phillips has often been at the extreme-right edge of conservative ideology, where he is often considered unrealistic even by other conservatives. But opposition to economic aid to the Soviets is based not just on objections to subsidizing communism but also on the budgetary impact in the United States and the Right's general antipathy to any foreign aid, which is seen as just another government giveaway. "It hits several hot buttons for conservatives," Flaherty of the Conservative Campaign Fund said.
If events have brought these groups to a state of "dormancy," as a conservative activist put it, what will happen when an issue arises that wakes them up? Would they then be able to pressure Bush or enlist the support of enough congressional Republicans to block a moderate course in foreign or defense policy? At this point, that looks doubtful.

The Stanton Group is an umbrella organization that brings together 30-50 representatives of conservative defense and foreign policy groups for regular meetings every other week. Often, Members of Congress or the Administration will speak to them. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney recently addressed the group, participants said.

Some conservative activists say that these sessions can be used to coordinate lobbying campaigns. But others disparage that idea and say that the meetings provide little more than an opportunity to find out what projects other groups are working on.

Even their allies in Congress sense that the conservative groups are inactive. "I detect a perceptible erosion of focused support for the contras," Rep. Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., said. Asked whether conservative groups had had much of a presence during congressional debates this year on defense and foreign policy issues, Hyde replied, "I don't see them." He added that this could be because he is a reliable supporter in most instances.

Sen. Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyo., said that the conservative groups' absence wasn't surprising. "We're getting along pretty well," he said of the relationship between the White House and hawkish Republican Senators. He acknowledged that the "perception" of a reduced Soviet threat will "diminish these groups' ability to raise money or raise passions." But he added that "the biggest part of their troubles is one they wouldn't trade, and that is going to be at least 12 years of a Republican presidency."

Most conservatives acknowledge that their current torpor would make it very difficult for them to mount a successful challenge to any strategic arms reduction treaty that they might consider flawed.

The last time conservatives mounted anything approaching a campaign to reject a White House initiative on foreign policy was in late 1987, when Reagan asked the Senate to approve the INF Treaty. They were routed. "No matter what he did, our people stayed with him," direct-mail specialist Stone said of Reagan. "It has yet to be seen" whether money could be raised to oppose Bush policies, she said, "and I don't foresee that happening."

But conservative activists in Washington may choose to vent their anger at Bush's Secretary of State, James A. Baker III, who, like one of his Republican predecessors, Henry A. Kissinger, is seen by the Right as too eager to compromise at the treaty table. Baker is reported to have caused the departure of Everett E. Briggs, a conservative member of the National Security Council staff, and The New York Times reported on Oct. 27 that Baker censored a speech by deputy national security adviser Robert M. Gates, a conservative favorite, because of its pessimism about Gorbachev's prospects.

If Gorbachev succeeds, and if the Soviet threat becomes even more remote, that might spell trouble for the entire conservative coalition. Anti-Communism has united the old Right, which is concerned primarily with economic affairs, and the new Right, with its social policy agenda. "If that issue were to disappear, then the bonds that hold the movement together become much weaker," said David A. Keene, chairman of the Conservative Political Action Conference.

So far, Bush hasn't tried to rally the conservatives behind a policy, but neither has he incited them into opposition. "It's sort of limbo," said American Conservative Union director Daniel L. Casey. "Over all, there is nothing to move the grass roots."