It was strangely disconcerting to find myself once again sitting with top GOP strategists in the same room in the venerable Hay Adams Hotel, across from the White House, where I had met with leaders 30 years ago. The genteel furnishings hadn't changed a bit, and neither had the circumstances: In 1967 Republicans had just scored huge congressional gains, the incumbent Democratic president was in trouble, and the White House was in our sights.

Just like today.

Top priority was drafting a party platform. We need rhetoric strong enough to placate the zealots, the chairman said, while not threatening the moderates. Ruffle no feathers, and we slide into office on President Clinton's unpopularity. Around the table I heard murmurs of approval.

The issue most likely to ruffle feathers, of course, was abortion. "We have no choice," said Lew, an older man with thinning black hair. "The only thing that reverses Roe v. Wade is a human life amendment. We won with that platform in 1980, '84, '88, and would have won in '92, if Bush hadn't blown it."

"Hold it," said the man beside me. "A constitutional amendment is a red flag to Pete Wilson, who may be our nominee, not to mention front-line governors: Pataki, Weld, Whitman. If we include a human life amendment, they'll renounce it."

We all knew what that meant: A split in the party would cost us the election. Then a young man sitting across the table spoke up. "We social conservatives realize that it's not necessarily to our advantage to win every battle," he said with a pleasant smile.

The chairman took out a statement and passed copies around the table. I scanned it quickly. The statement urged debates at the state level-in keeping with the party's emphasis on decentralization-with the goal of building a national consensus from the ground up against abortion. Good stuff, I thought. But there was no mention of a human life amendment.

Lew threw the paper down. "Religious conservatives will never buy it," he sputtered. "Remember: Casey v. Planned Parenthood transformed abortion into a liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. The states can vote any way they want, but they'll lose in court. We have to change the Constitution. Anything less is empty rhetoric."

The young man across the table smiled. "Religious conservatives won't walk out. Where will they go? They detest Clinton. Besides, in the last election, exit polls showed that the number-one issue for them was taxes. Promise to lower taxes, and 90 percent won't care about abortion."

"The winning combination is clear," sounded another voice. "Get government out of our pocketbooks and out of our bedrooms. Economic conservatism and social libertarianism. Look at these focus group findings." He brandished a sheaf of papers.

"We're the party of freedom and choice," added another man, whom I knew to be close to the Speaker. "That slogan wins 80 percent of the independents." But Lew remained adamant. "There's a hard core who'll bolt if we sell out over abortion," he insisted.

"Okay, let's calculate the numbers," I spoke up. "About a third of the electorate are Republicans, a little larger percentage are Democrats, and the rest are independents. In the last election, 22 percent of Republicans were self-described evangelicals. But the hard core Religious Right probably constitutes only a quarter of that. So if they jump ship, what do we actually lose? Only about 5 percent. On the other hand, we pick up three or four times that many independents."

Around the table, heads were nodding.

"In fact," I continued, "if the Religious Right leaves the party, we actually benefit: We shake the negative image from the Houston convention. Did you see this poll?" I waved another paper. "Thirty percent of Americans say they wouldn't want a fundamentalist living next door."

"Go on, Colson," the chairman said, leaning back in his chair with a smile.

"This new plank is perfect," I said, my enthusiasm mounting. "It makes us sound pro-life, but the moderates know that the constitutional issue is settled, so we're really pro-choice. And if the hotheads walk out of the convention and blast us, all the better for us. Maybe I'll even write their statement for them."

The chairman chuckled. "You always were good at dirty tricks. And you're right: We're better off without the hotheads."

Lew glowered. "But abortion is a moral issue … "

I cut him off. "Politics is about winning. We have to get the power first. Then we can do what's right."

"Remember, keep this under your hats, gentlemen," the chairman said. "We don't want to tip off the hard core before the convention." Amid a rustling of papers, we all rose and started to leave.

Suddenly I sat up and looked around wildly. I wasn't in Washington after all, I was at home in my own bed. I put my head in my hands and prayed: "Oh Lord, what a nightmare. Thank you for taking me away from politics-and away from the political mentality of winning at any cost."

But as I lay down, a frightening thought flashed through my mind: Is there another Chuck Colson sitting at that strategy table today?


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