The End of Values Voters? An Undercover Report on CPAC

Sean Mulligan goes undercover at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington DC with a surprising result—hardly any mention of God and faith. Does this mean the end of religion’s influence in politics?

“America belongs to God.” The line provoked a weak chorus of cheers and applause. I was seated several rows deep in the heart of the Marriott Ballroom, looking over my notes, when I heard it. It was by far the most unapologetic of the speech’s many strident sentiments. Rick Santorum, former senator of Pennsylvania, now a Fox News analyst and traveling showman, was certainly the most vocal social conservative at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), held this past weekend in Washington DC. He defended his backwards stance on women’s rights, church/state separation, and classroom education with a marked vehemence. If you closed your eyes, you might imagine he was running for President.

This will be the dominant narrative for most of the press regarding CPAC. It’s a convention where the potential Republican nominees can throw some chum to their base and trot out a handful of possible slogans. Perhaps also notable to the media is the convention’s near apocalyptic rhetoric on the deficit of the United States. Grover Norquist’s Club for Growth, a major sponsor of CPAC and in many ways its most influential backer, ensured that deficit hawks and budget wonks took center stage. On sum, if you tallied up the amount of times the words “taxes,” “deficits,” and “spending,” were used and compared that number to the amount of times “God,” “Christianity,” or “faith,” the deficit doomsayers would possess an overwhelming advantage.

But those who judge the convention as a dog and pony show (with some clever embellishments about the economy) do so at their peril. The real story of CPAC is not the debt ceiling, or budget geek Paul Ryan’s absurd plan to gut Medicare and Social Security, or Ann Coulter’s call for more jailed journalists in Egypt and elsewhere. What I saw this year at CPAC—at times not even barely concealed—was a fast growing rift in the Republican Party, one that will define the 2012 primary race, and come to shape the electoral future of this country.

It’s somewhat trite to observe that there is a “civil war” going on right now in the GOP. I wouldn’t call it that—it might rate on the war scale at “low intensity conflict.” As it stands now, there are three major factions. I was lucky to see standard-bearers from each, and to interact with their supporters. If I could emphasize one point it would be that CPAC this year confirmed what was suspected at last year’s CPAC. Amongst all the hagiography regarding President Reagan, the coalition he represented, the movement whose architect was William F. Buckley, has now completely come undone. The conservative alliance that brought Reagan into the White House also had three parties. Social conservatives, anti-communist Cold Warriors, and tax cutting, pro-business advocates all found a home in the Reagan presidency. Because of the Reagan centenary I heard over and over this emphasis on a “three legged stool,” as Santorum described it. Flush with victory, the movement’s leaders over and over insisted they remain principled while governing. Unfortunately these three parties, held together in an uneasy truce by Reagan’s clever pandering, are now eagerly jockeying to forge a new Republican Party, each according to their own principles and beliefs. Humanists of every stripe would do well to pay attention, because whoever succeeds will shape America’s debates on policy for decades to come.

In the interests of clarity, let’s quickly debunk one article of faith held by many pundits. There is no out and out division between establishment Republicans and newly elected Tea Partiers. Each faction can claim new faces and old hands: Ron Paul has been in office since 1997, which means he has four years on Tea Party hero Michele Bachmann. Newly elected Senator Pat Toomey has been running for Senate since 2004 (Philadelphia commuters might remember his hideous billboards that overlooked the Ben Franklin Bridge) and Newt Gingrich’s record speaks for itself; what that record says is another matter. To be sure, Rep. Bachmann seemed unduly concerned with the seductive powers of Washington in her keynote speech, and Mitch McConnell struggled to find applause in his overly long address on the size of government. But the divisions are more nuanced than this, and certainly more interesting.

The first and most vibrant party is a quasi-libertarian movement, drawing its inspiration from the original Tea Partier, Ron Paul. Also worth mentioning in this faction is Paul’s son, Rand (yes, he’s named after Ayn Rand) and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson. Ron Paul rose to prominence as a cut spending, cut taxes, end the war, end all the wars: the war on poverty, drugs, terrorism, Iraq, etc., candidate who was particularly fond of citing the Constitution during the 2008 primary debates. Young voters flocked to him in droves. This year at CPAC Ron Paul won his second consecutive straw poll vote victory, which, despite much derision from the mainstream media and the chattering classes, is a significant indicator of support among CPAC attendees. The second faction is a new clutch of half social conservatives, half fiscal conservatives. These conservatives call themselves the real Tea Party, and their issues are something of a GOP greatest hits compilation: cutting taxes, cutting spending, securing the border, etc. Social issues have taken a backseat, but this is a Republican Party with very few new ideas. Indeed their primary rhetorical device is to refer back to the Constitution, prompting newly minted Speaker Boehner to insert into the rules of the House of Representatives an absurd new measure. The “Constitutional Authority Statement” was touted as a rule designed to rein in an overweening government, demanding that every new bill passed must explain in its body where it derives constitutional authority. I must point out that any wag with a pocket constitution would argue that the “necessary and proper” clause, also known as “the sweeping clause,” could be used to justify a whole variety of legislation, making this new rule rather stupid from its inception.

The final group, and the most desperate this year, is a wary cooperative effort between mostly establishment Republicans and social conservatives. The vast majority of these people are “values voters;” they insist on government intervention on matters as weighty as reproductive and marriage rights and cannot, by any means, be called small government conservatives. They’re natural rivals of the Paulites, who, while ostensibly pro-life, very rarely emphasize reproductive rights. Former Senator Santorum was speaking to this one group in particular, calling out the faithful, so that they might be named.

But what struck me most was the paucity of filled seats for Santorum’s speech. Sure, he’s not a huge draw, not charismatic by any means, and chiefly known for his confused rhetoric regarding the slippery slope of gay matrimony. Yet, in a ballroom where I struggled to find a seat for Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann, and Mitt Romney, Santorum’s turnout (or lack thereof) was certainly pointed. It’s tempting to note, then, that the shrill tone of the rhetoric seems to increase as support for this third leg of the conservative stool begins to wane.

The introduction at CPAC of GOProud, an organization of gay Republicans, also suggests that the power of these social conservatives has weakened. This prompted the loud exit and nominal boycott of many socially conservative groups, who already have a convention of their own in the annual Values Voters Summit. This is not to say that traditional marriage was not repeatedly exulted as a miracle too fragile to sustain the introduction of homosexual unions, or that pro-life, Lila Rose types were absent. I personally sat through one panel on “defending traditional marriage” where Tom Minnery, a Focus on the Family partisan, argued that gay marriage would lead to an increase in abortion rates among black youths. I was listening with half an ear until he began this farcical soliloquy: apparently, enabling LGBT persons to marry will so defame the institution that children everywhere will engage willy nilly in premarital sex.

To refute a point so odd is sort of like arguing with leafy greens: you recognize the futility before you begin. Still, in order, why wouldn’t allowing more people to marry shore up the foundations of a rapidly crumbling (and historically religious) institution? Minnery has not been a teenager for some time, but he should be aware that even among those born in the 1940s, more than nine out of ten Americans had premarital sex. As contraception becomes more and more readily available, this number is likely to increase. Can anyone seriously believe a teenager in the Bronx is holding out for marriage, and will only consent to sex because homosexuals can now marry? This contention would be amusing if it wasn’t so offensive.

Minnery’s belief that the institution of marriage will be fatally wounded by its expansion to include our LGBT siblings is emblematic of the logic of this third wheel in the conservative movement. Another panel on “The Pro-Life Movement: Plans and Goals” promoted the delusion that Planned Parenthood is an institution bent on securing profits for its shadowy backers and also “targeting kids.” I recognize that many conservatives were unfairly pilloried in the wake of the Tucson, Arizona shooting on the subject of inflammatory rhetoric. We engage in it as a matter of course, and a lively discourse is a healthy one. But the use of such words as “targeting” seems particularly gauche nowadays.

So rudimentary logic was not in attendance on Friday where I saw Kristan Hawkins claim that Planned Parenthood needed to be defunded, and that it “targeted [her]” for murder. Hawkins waded thence into the realm of contradiction, repeatedly claiming that family planning organizations were designed as for-profit “chop shops.” This grisly language put me off at first, and belied the inconsistency in her rhetoric. Do family planners ardently hunt for children or do they thirst for cash? I’m sorry to be so sensational, but at CPAC, fighting words were catching.

Not nearly as infectious was an enthusiasm for traditional values issues. In a highly unscientific survey of exhibition tables I saw vastly more organizations rallying for liberty rather than life. Newt Gingrich’s address contained a single values statement, advocating for a permanent Hyde Amendment. Similarly, Mitt Romney mentioned just once abortion issues in his flag-waving, jingoistic speech. By contrast he managed to deride European social welfare at least four times.  The question, then, is this: do values voters have a horse in this race other than Santorum, and are they losing their seat at the Republican table?

Speaking at CPAC is part of the conservative cursus honorum for potential Republican presidents; Sarah Palin’s absence was plainly felt throughout the convention, and I can’t count the number of times I heard rank and file cons complain about her cancellation. Where she stands in this conflict is unclear. She certainly can’t claim the badge of libertarian, but her position on marijuana policy is basically decriminalization. This is far more progressive than any other major presumptive candidate. She’s most in her element among values voters and social conservatives, but she’s cultivated a strong relationship with the fiscal conservatives in the Tea Party. Palin, like Romney, has a serious problem in that she appeals to each of these camps but cannot claim full membership in any of them. Some people would jump at the chance to vote for Sarah Palin, but influential endorsements from people like Grover Norquist are a separate issue. Yet if Palin were forced to choose a tribe, she would certainly pick the social conservatives. Her homespun rhetoric on life, family and flag are more about values than anything else.

In this light, it’s instructive to look at the straw poll’s results. Romney took second place: no surprise for a former business leader in a CPAC almost singularly focused on the size of government and specifically government spending. Gary Johnson, a libertarian with an even better track record on opposing spending than Representative Paul, and Chris Christie, a tax cutting, budget slashing fiscal conservative, tied for third. Sarah Palin, who claimed third place last year, barely rated at 3% of the overall vote, just leading other social conservatives Mike Huckabee and the aforementioned Santorum.

It’s worth wondering if this straw poll is a fair assessment of the support and strength of various conservative factions. The boycott of CPAC by many social conservative groups would lead one to conclude that the poll has little value in assessing a true leader in any future primary. This may be, but the mere fact that socially conservative groups are voluntarily exiting the convention suggests to me their influence is weakening. Their mortal enemies, social libertarians, turn out in droves to vote for someone like Paul or Johnson, and social libertarians are by far the youngest in terms of demographic. Even David Keene, the outgoing American Conservative Union President, observed that “Ron Paul energized kids, and I want those kids.”

But getting those kids is another matter entirely. Many libertarians feel uncomfortable with the government dictating the regulation of pasteurization, let alone reproductive rights. Their overall message of a smaller, less intrusive government appeals broadly to those who worry about the deficit, people more concerned with personal responsibility, even those on the fringes who worry about insidious government conspiracies. In order to secure the enthusiastic support of young voters, the conservative movement must make a difficult decision: rely on the time-tested turnout of aging social conservatives and reject those who are serious about small government or embrace the libertarian wing and risk the loss of social conservatives everywhere.

As humanists our eye should be on these young voters who insist that their body is their property; this applies for drugs, privacy, and reproductive rights. Unity among social, civil, and fiscal libertarians is more possible now than ever. This is potentially good news for those who believe in a less intrusive domestic policy in all arenas, and potentially very bad news for those who shouted “Amen” as Rick Santorum observed that “America belongs to God.” Looking up from my pad, I paused to make sure I heard him right before writing in my notes, “Perhaps not for long.”