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Learning to Manage the Fringe

Texas GOP gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina speaks with the press after an interview with Glenn Beck. (YouTube)
Texas GOP gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina speaks with the press after an interview with Glenn Beck. (YouTube)

Texas GOP gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina speaks with the press after her interview with Glenn Beck. (YouTube)

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference kicks off in Washington today, and one would-be conservative star — Debra Medina — won’t be missed.

In late January, polls showed Medina’s campaign for governor of Texas surging from single digits — the usual terrain of first-time candidates given to talk of “revolution” and nullifying federal laws — into the low twenties. That was enough support to force a run-off, and enough to turn the media’s attention to the latest story of surprising Tea Party success. Then, on February 11, Glenn Beck booked her on his radio show and asked whether a nasty rumor was true. Did she “believe the government was in any way involved with the bringing down of the World Trade Centers on 9/11?”

[GOP1]Medina didn’t say no. “I don’t have all of the evidence, there, Glenn,” she said, stumbling a bit over her words. “And I think the American people have not seen all of the evidence there. So I have not taken a position on that.”

A groan went up across the conservative blogosphere. When Medina backpedaled by pointing out that Americans also had questions about President Barack Obama’s citizenship, a louder groan went up. Erick Erickson, the influential editor of RedState.com — a website that regularly features guest posts from Republican politicians — announced that the site, which had always banned 9/11 conspiracy theories, was also banning “birthers.”

“If you think 9/11 was an inside job,” wrote Erickson, “or you really want to debate whether or not Barack Obama is an American citizen eligible to be President, RedState is not a place for you.”

One Tea Party activist who watched this unfold with dismay was Judson Phillips. Days before the Medina meltdown, he wrapped up the first National Tea Party Convention in front of dozens of TV cameras and 200 reporters. He’d announced the formation of a new Tea Party-driven PAC and introduced the press to Tea Party-affiliated congressional candidates.

“What Medina did,” Phillips mused this week to TWI, “that might have been the classic self-inflicted wound. It’s clear that she may have been a good candidate someday, and it’s clear that she wasn’t ready for prime time.”

When he ran the National Tea Party Convention, Phillips got a sense of how fringe beliefs and fringe activists could harm the movement. Handled correctly, they didn’t have to do much damage at all. On its first night, former congressman Tom Tancredo used his time at the podium to call the president “Barack Hussein Obama” and say his election could have been prevented by voter “literacy tests.” On its second night, WorldNetDaily Editor-in-Chief Joseph Farah spent roughly 10 minutes of a 40-minute speech musing about President Obama’s citizenship. Those stories got mainstream media coverage, and Phillips fielded questions on them, but the stories didn’t outlast the showy closing speech by Sarah Palin.

“For better or worse,” Phillips told TWI, “America’s got a really short attention span. If you go past a few days, people forget about it. Basically, if you don’t want to be taken down, you have to stay on message, and you have to ignore what the media is doing.”

Phillips’s experience wasn’t unqiue. Conservative activists and Republican politicians have, thus far in the Obama presidency, largely been able to escape the negative attention generated by the movement’s fringes. A February 11 ABC News/Washington Post poll found 35 percent of Americans holding favorable views of the Tea Party movement to 40 percent who hold negative views — negative overall, but better than the ratings for Congress. And that same poll found voters splitting evenly, 46 percent to 46 percent, on whether they wanted the Democrats or the Republicans to win control of Congress in the midterm elections. Despite the increased visibility and power of out-of-the-mainstream activists and rhetoric, the party itself is on steadier footing.

All of this is on the minds of conservatives and liberals alike today as they arrive for CPAC, the traditional gathering of conservatives that brings presidential hopefuls, young activists, and power players to a D.C. hotel. In the run-up to the convention, CPAC Director Lisa De Pasquale announced that a panel on Obama’s citizenship had been ruled out and took the side of GOProud, a gay Republican group, in a dispute with religious conservatives — the leader of the group, Jimmy LaSalvia, is now slated to appear on a Saturday technology panel.

At the same time, CPAC has accepted the sponsorship of the John Birch Society — a far-right group famously exiled from the conservative movement by William F. Buckley. And some figures in the “birther” movement will be making appearances at the conference. Gary Kreep, a lawyer who represents fringe presidential candidate Alan Keyes in a suit demanding Obama’s birth certificate, will appear on a panel titled “Saving Freedom and Due Process from An Oppressive Justice Department,” alongside Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Hi-Caliber, a Republican rapper who dropped a verse about Obama’s citizenship at the 9/12 march on Washington, will appear at party hosted by XPAC2010, a series of religious conservative events happening alongside CPAC.

The toxic fringe issues that convinced activists to distance themselves from Medina won’t be the only controversial elements of the movement coming into the CPAC spotlight. While at past conferences Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.)’s brand of anti-Federal Reserve, strict constructionist conservative has gotten a polite reception, this year representatives from his Campaign for Liberty are co-sponsoring multiple panels. The Tea Party movement, blasted by Democratic leaders and liberal activists for the extremism that surfaces at some rallies, is an even greater presence.

Liberals are primed to find and publicize every CPAC flirtation with fringe politics. TalkingPointsMemo has assigned three reporters to cover the event and Faiz Shakir, the editor of ThinkProgress, told TWI that some number of staffers will attend the convention with video cameras. In the run-up, other liberal-leaning news organizations have run stories on the sensational themes of CPAC panels and a Nancy Pelosi pinata that will be beaten up at an off-site party. But conservatives, who have grown used to having to explain the actions of fringe activists, have seen that coverage of CPAC before. But if the recent past is prologue, making hay out of the fringe elements that will walk the halls, and the event stage, with possible 2012 GOP candidates, won’t do lasting damage.

“Everybody talks about William F. Buckley repudiating the Birchers,” said J.P. Freire, an editor at the Washington Examiner who was the 2009 CPAC Journalist of the Year. “That’s fine. That’s supposed to happen. But he didn’t spend the rest of his career belaboring the point. When you want to ostracize the fringe, you do not clamp down on it. You ignore it.”

When Freire received his award last year, he had just come from speaking at one of the first-ever Tea Party protests, a rally of around 100 people in Lafayette Square. One year of aggressive and mocking media coverage of that movement, he said, had revealed that the only people damaged by fringe behavior were the offenders themselves — not the conservative movement.

“This is out of Saul Alinsky,” said Freire, suggesting that it was a distraction that wasn’t selling given the grievances that mainstream activists had with Democratic policies. “You’re trying to marginalize the critics, but you’re not addressing their concerns.”

Conservatives have become aware that fringe issues can trip them up. J.D. Hayworth, a former congressman from Arizona who’s challenging Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the primary, has stumbled in interviews when asked about the president’s citizenship. On Monday, Republican congressional candidate Sean Duffy told TWI that he’s asked “the birther question” from time to time, but he quickly dismisses it and moves on, as he does when asked if he supports plans to nullify or abolish social insurance.

“There are people on the fringe of everything,” said Terry Jeffrey, the editor of CNSNews.com, who is moderating a panel on “Saving Freedom from The Enemies of Our Values” at CPAC. “I just don’t think that the average person identifies some nut, somewhere, with what conservatism is all about. The bigger problem is that the president needs to answer for some of the people at the White House, and the crazy things they’ve said.”

Liberal watchdogs and bloggers aren’t changing their plans. Last year, ThinkProgress correspondents got multiple Republicans on video commenting on Rush Limbaugh’s remark that he wanted the president to “fail.” This year, they’re going to be demanding accountability again, even if conservatives figure they can police their own fringes and ignore the blowback.

“I’m not trying to shoot for the stars,” said Faiz Shakir, the editor of ThinkProgress. “All I want is a record. It shouldn’t be possible for people to duck into a conference, espouse hate-filled rhetoric, and duck out without a trace.”

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