For Want of a Nail
From the November 20, 1987, issue of NR.


Maggie Gallagher

Bork was not without his defenders. Grassroots conservative organizations conducted mailings to flood the Senate with pro-Bork mail. By and large, they succeeded. “The liberals were outdone in ninety of one hundred Senate offices,” says Pat McGuigan. “We delivered the grassroots to the in-box of the U.S. Senate. But it wasn’t enough.” Grassroots letter campaigns only work if senators fear that roused passions will translate into negative votes in the next election. “Conservatives haven’t hung any scalps on the wall since 1980,” says Dan Casey. “We don’t have the clout we used to.”

Also, though movement organizations delivered the mail, they provided no real media clout. Part of the difference came down to dollars; the anti-Bork forces had more. We the People, a California group run by Bill Roberts (a former Reagan campaign manager in California), was the designated hitter for the pro-Bork media campaign. “Whenever we talked to White House officials about coming up with the money for advertising,” says one prominent conservative who was active in the Bork fight, “they always said, ‘Oh, we can’t talk about that — but contact We the People’ — nudge, nudge, wink. We understood they had the White House’s tacit blessing.”

As a fundraising vehicle, We the People proved disappointing. Roberts told the press the group would raise at least $2 million. But as of mid-October, it had taken in only “a couple of hundred thousand,” according to Fred S. Karger, Executive Vice President of the Dolphin Group, the political consulting firm that handled We the People’s media campaign.

Nor was the money deployed intelligently. The Senate’s Southern Democrats were the key to the fight. But the Dolphin Group is a professional political consulting firm that specializes in doing statewide-proposition work.

So where did We the People place its first two ads? Massachusetts and Oregon, neither of them key states for Bork, but both states in which there are many potential clients for a firm with the Dolphin Group’s expertise.

“We kept Hatfield . . . that was a surprise,” said Karger when asked about the efficacy of his organization’s ad strategy, though no one I spoke with thought a media campaign was necessary to keep Hatfield (who is Republican and pro-life) in the fold. Karger says the group had planned to place ads in Florida and Alabama, but when money ran low, it put three full-page ads in USA Today instead. Assuming We the People paid normal advertising rates, running these ads cost $57,777.44. With $12,000, they could have bought a pro-Bork ad in Alabama’s two largest cities. Alabama is the home of Senator Howell Heflin, whose vote against Bork probably sealed the judge’s fate.

For the Bork campaign to win, Pat McGuigan says, all GOP resources would have had to be engaged, including the president, the Senate GOP, the Republican establishment, and corporate America. That never happened. During the long Judiciary Committee delay, while the Indians danced on the warpath, Ronald Reagan stayed home at the ranch, assured by his advisors that Baker could schmooze the Bork nomination past his Senate cronies.

During the recess, the White House released a briefing book to answer charges that Bork was a conservative activist, emphasizing that Judge Bork’s conservative jurisprudence was neutral as to results. The media played it as an attempt to make Bork appear “moderate,” not quite the same as “principled” or even “mainstream” — both of which his court record show him to be. But you can’t micromanage fine points when you’re working with a hostile press. Once the issue became moderation, the administration was doomed to the defensive.