“Let me start with some bad news. It’s worse than you just saw.”
Kelley Shackleford, the chief counsel of the Liberty Legal Institute, had just shown the overflowing ballroom of the Omni Shoreham hotel–the site of the fourth annual Values Voter Summit–a video of his organization’s most heartstring-tugging case. A 75-year-old war memorial cross in the Mojave desert, visible from the highway, was covered up after the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit.
“The fact that this cross, this memorial, is covered in a box of plywood, is a disgrace!” said Shackleford. Conservative activists who’d paid $99 to attend the two-day summit murmured in amazement. They had listened to some of the most powerful Republican members of Congress pick apart President Barack Obama’s economic and foreign policies, but this was an outrage. This sort of legal tyranny had been bad enough during the Bush years, but under a Democratic president and Congress, what recourse did they have?
This was the theme of the first day of the Summit, the largest yet–according to organizers, nearly 2,000 people had registered to listen to a lineup of speakers that would include Bill O’Reilly, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), and the ever-dueling former governors turned presidential candidates, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. Following eight months of Tea Parties, and in the immediate wake of last weekend’s march on Washington, speakers did not have to work to convince the audience that their values were under the gun.
In an adjoining exhibit hall, conservative groups like the National Organization for Marriage and the Center for Law and Justice staffed booths with pamphlets, videos, and free candy. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) held court at the booth of Mpower, a device that “puts parents in control of Internet and TV” and “lets you watch popular shows free of offensive content.”
“They asked me to give the invocation for Phyllis Schlafly,” said Santorum, leaning back in his chair, hands folded behind his head. “We’ll see what the Holy Spirit has to say.”
But the real action was in the ballroom, where a series of politicians and activists seemed to rejoice in eight months of critical coverage from the media. In a morning breakfast, Gary Bauer–the longtime Family Research Council chairman who quit in 1999 for a doomed presidential bid–bubbled over with excitement at the numbers of conservative activists in the streets. From the rostrum in the ballroom, Bauer promised that a “tidal wave” was coming that would wash away “the naysayers and the elitists.” He compared coverage of the Tea Parties and attacks on conservative “racism” with the media’s lack of interest in left-wing bigotry.
“Where were the civility police when Rev. Jeremiah Wright was preaching that hate in his church, in front of some very important people?” asked Bauer. “How many of you have been called racist?”
Bauer struggled a bit to find proof that liberals were being hypocritical in their attacks, harking back to the 1991 confirmation hearing of then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
“They’re not pro-black,” said Bauer with a shake of his head, “they’re pro-liberal black! As long as they stay down on that plantation!”
Two African-American conservatives, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and author Star Parker, were given prime speaking slots, during which they hammered home Bauer’s familiar gospel of white liberals oppressing minorities with their patronizing good intentions. But the powerful Republican members of Congress who filled the podiums in morning sessions transferred the idea of liberal oppression to the audience as a whole. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the telegenic House GOP conference chairman, kicked off the proceedings with the first of many references to the self-proclaimed Tea Party movement.
“Tony, you’ve put on a great event,” said Pence, turning to Tony Perkins, the president of FRC Action–the political arm of Focus on the Family, sponsors of the event. “But if the national media covers this like it covered the events last weekend, the headline will be: ‘Dozens attend values voter summit!’”
“You know who these protesters were because you were the people in these town halls,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Republican leader in the Senate, whose salutes to the crowd’s activism during the August recess were the highlights of dour, policy-centric speech. (“He’s not much of a speaker,” said Pep Pepelinjak, an activist from Washington state attending his first Summit. “He’s a good advocate, though.”) “You’re the people who prove the politicians wrong when they say that all this activism and unrest was crafted, somehow, in a boardroom, down on K Street. The grassroots movement isn’t astroturf, as they like to put it. It’s something that started at your kitchen tables.”
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the highest-ranking Republican member of the House to attend the conference echoed McConnell’s sentiment. “I’d like to thank you for fighting on the fighting lines of what we know is a battle for our democracy,” he said . After his speech, after signing a Gadsen flag, he told TWI that “there’s been an awakening in America,” represented in the Tea Parties.
“People are beginning to wake up and see a country they don’t really recognize,” said Cantor.
The embrace of the Tea Party movement, and the town halls, may have been inevitable–some people in the crowd had been the subjects of those scary media attacks. Katie Abram, a “stay at home mom” from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, had asked Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Penn.) a question about the constitutionality of national health care reform, and found herself booked on shows like Hardball, where she faced withering questions from Lawrence O’Donnell about Medicare and Medicaid.
“I got a phone call right after that town hall,” said Abram, exasperated, “from someone calling me a racist. Because I’d said we should follow the Constitution!” Abram’s take on the state of the country mirrored that of many attendees, who didn’t swoon at the appeals from elected Republicans. “I don’t feel like I have a party anymore. I’ve felt like we’re on a train that’s running off the rails ever since the PATRIOT Act passed.”
Attendees were not overly concerned with any particular social issue. They felt attacked on all fronts. There were some warnings of the threat of gay marriage–mostly from Carrie Prejean, the Miss California who lost her bid to become Miss USA after saying she opposed same-sex unions–but angst about a social issue that had riveted conservatives for most of this decade was buried by worries about the other threats to American values. Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-Minn.), a likely 2012 Republican presidential hopeful, drew only measured applause when he mentioned “defending traditional marriage.” It was when he mentioned, specifically, the victory of anti-gay marriage forces in California, the applause picked up. Telling activists of a mounting threat was one thing–reminding them that the threat has been identified and met in the streets and at polls was what they wanted to hear.
“This is not politically incorrect!” said Pawlenty. “This is not politically offensive! This is what our founding fathers believed.”