Few people are as closely identified with the right wing of the political spectrum as Richard A. Viguerie. In nearly four decades of six-day-a-week labors, the pioneer of direct-mail rabble-rousing has helped create hundreds of organizations -- including Gun Owners of America, the National Right to Work Foundation and the National Conservative Political Action Committee -- and was instrumental in electing such noted and controversial conservatives as Jesse Helms and Bob Dornan. He's been called "the funding father of the conservative movement."
Then why is he saying such nice things about liberals? The reason, Viguerie says, is that facts are facts: When it comes to stirring up the masses, the political left is doing a better job than the right in getting its message across. The 71-year-old ideological warrior believes that left-leaning groups are miles ahead in using the world's most powerful and efficient marketing tool -- the Internet -- for political advocacy. And as remarkable as it sounds, he also says that the left has eclipsed the right in Viguerie's own specialty, direct mail.
"On balance, in my opinion, the liberals do a better job than conservatives with direct mail," Viguerie said this summer in a speech to the Direct Marketing Association's Nonprofit Federation in New York. And in an interview here, he adds: "In terms of using the Internet for political activism in recent years, the left is running circles around conservatives."
Viguerie is uniquely qualified to draw such conclusions. His Manassas-based firm, now called American Target Advertising Inc., has mailed more than 2 billion letters over the past 40 years and will send more than 100 million pieces of direct mail this year. The purpose of all that postage: to build support for "New Right" causes that range from cutting taxes to bolstering family values. Viguerie's chief asset is a list of 3 1/2 million names of people who can reliably be called upon to support such causes with their votes and their dollars. He also has worked for years to make inroads into Internet politics.
Those aren't small efforts. It's easy to forget that legislation often originates not with politicians but with agitators from outside government. That was certainly the case with what are now thought of as the two Republican "revolutions" of the past quarter century. The first was the landslide victory of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the second was the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994. The policies pursued by the Republicans in both instances had their genesis in the "movement" that Viguerie and other unelected activists championed.
Lately, however, Viguerie's side has been lagging, not leading. As proof, Viguerie cites the fundraising prowess of former Vermont governor Howard Dean's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Dean raised most of his $40 million via the Internet in small donations. And Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), who bested Dean for the Democratic nomication, has raised roughly seven times as much as President Bush in small contributions over the Internet. The Democratic National Committee is also spewing out more direct-mail solicitations this year than it did in the entire 1990s. "Kerry is building a massive grass-roots army of contributors through the Internet and direct mail," Viguerie said.
Viguerie is especially worried that it's not just Democratic regulars who are making those strides. Such independent groups as MoveOn.org, which are dedicated to defeating Bush but are separate from the Democratic establishment, are also raising tons of dough and appear to be inspiring millions of people to "meet up" and organize themselves into substantial voting blocs. That momentum has the potential to upend Bush's reelection hopes. "On a scale of one to 10, the Democrats' enthusiasm for defeating Bush is at 11," Viguerie said. "The conservatives' enthusiasm for electing Bush is at 8 1/2 ."
In particular, he says, Christian conservatives might decide to stay at home rather than go to the polls this year. White House political guru Karl Rove has estimated that upward of 4 million such voters didn't turn out in 2000 and that he hopes to get them to come out this time. But Viguerie disagrees: "I don't see why this election is going to be different than that." And no matter who wins on Nov. 2, Viguerie asserts, "some time early on the morning of Nov. 3, there'll be a big battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party."
If that sounds apocalyptic for Bush, it is. Then again, Viguerie isn't the most objective analyst. First of all, Viguerie considers himself a Republican "by convenience" and a conservative by choice. He isn't now and never has been a favorite of the Bush branch of the Grand Old Party. In fact, he believes that Bush and his allies have sold out small-government conservatives like himself by reducing the rationale for reelection to a single word: bribery. Viguerie says with disappointment that the Republican Party, just like the Democratic Party, is trying to buy the votes of selected constituencies with government largesse. That makes him, among conservatives, a relative radical.
Second, highlighting liberals' successes is an excellent way to shake the conservative money tree, which is after all what Viguerie's business is about. As the wily veteran of electoral wars knows, nothing incites more passion -- and more generosity -- among conservatives than the contention that liberals are on the rise. Earlier this year, Viguerie tried to scare up sales of his new book (co-authored with David Franke), "America's Right Turn," by posting a hyperbolic letter on his Web site, ConservativeHQ.com. He warned that "the tide is shifting in this election campaign," that "we conservatives are in deep trouble," and that "if we don't get as good at this as they are, and better, then we will lose the fight for America."
That was clearly overstated for effect. Yet, Viguerie may be on to something. What the left has -- and what the right does not -- is a target for popular venom. And in political marketing, Viguerie says, "fear, anger are much stronger motivations than support for a cause." According to Viguerie, liberals are moved by a deep dislike and distrust for Bush and that kind of negativism goes a long way in politics. "They're being driven by a lot of emotion; they're angry," he says with a grudging admiration. Conservatives, on the other hand, have been lulled into complacency by having their party in nominal control.
The result has been the left's stunning successes in cyberspace and direct mail. "It's always easier to build a movement when the other side is in power," he says. "When your own side is perceived to be in power, it's more difficult to organize." By Viguerie's logic, then, the best thing that could happen to the conservative movement is for the Republican standard bearer to lose. The direct-mail king says that is the exact opposite of what he wants. But if his analysis is correct, we might get that outcome anyway.
Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.