Inside the Council for National Policy

Judging by its 1998 membership roster, which was obtained by a secular watchdog group called the Institute for First Amendment Studies and posted on its Web site, the New Right's many colors are represented, but there are few, if any, neo-conservatives, Republican moderates and libertarians.

Selective name dropping doesn't juice up a conspiracy. The evidence that the CNP is an axis of nefarity is slim. Conservative groups are quick to point out that liberal watchdogs like Common Cause have a great influence in public policy debates, and, for instance, a direct hand in writing the campaign-finance legislation.

A New Force in the Age of Reagan

But even CNP backers claim that the liberal establishment has nothing comparable — no central gathering of its powerful members.

The idea for CNP gestated since the late 1960s, when the American Right, aiming for more cake, desired a vigorous voice to influence policy and elite opinion at the margins. Intellectuals it had, but practical policy seminars were missing. The Moral Majority flashed into being after Roe vs. Wade, but it was oriented toward Middle America, not to not-liberal Washington power-brokers.

CNP was conceived in 1981 by at least five fathers, including the Rev. Tim LaHaye, an evangelical preacher who was then the head of the Moral Majority. (LaHaye is the co-author of the popular Left Behind series that predicts and subsequently depicts the Apocalypse). Nelson Baker Hunt, billionaire son of billionaire oilman H.L. Hunt (connected to both the John Birch Society and to Ronald Reagan's political network), businessman and one-time murder suspect T. Cullen Davis, and wealthy John Bircher William Cies provided the seed money.

Top Republicans were quickly recruited to fill in the gaps; hard-right thinkers met up with sympathetic politicians. And suddenly, the right had a counterpart to liberal policy groups. Christian activist Paul Weyrich took responsibility for bringing together the best minds of conservatism, and his imprint on the group's mission is unmistakable: It provided a forum for religiously engaged conservative Christians to influence the geography of American political power.

At its first meeting in May of 1981, the CNP gave an award to Reagan budget guru David Stockman, strategized about judicial appointments, and reveled in its newness.

Since then, at thrice-yearly conventions, the CNP has functioned as a sausage factory for conservative ideas of a particular goût: strong affirmations of military power, Christian heritage, traditional values, and leave-us-alone-get-off-our-backs legislation. That red meat is seasoned by groups like David Keene's American Conservative Union, researched and vetted by conservative policy groups, chewed on and tested at statewide activist meetings.

There's no denying their influence: Money is transferred from benefactor to worthy cause. Aspirants meet benefactors.

The CNP helped Christian conservatives take control of the Republican state party apparati in Southern and Midwestern states. It helped to spread word about the infamous "Clinton Chronicles" videotapes that linked the president to a host of crimes in Arkansas.

But the CNP is one factory among many. It stands out nowadays because it prefers not to stand out.

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