Conservatives won big in the midterm elections by focusing on big government and soaring deficits—setting aside, for the moment, the usual menu of divisive social issues.
But the activists gathered this week in Washington for the annual Conservative Political Action Committee conference must not have gotten the memo about honing their strategy, or more likely, they can't help themselves now that they're back in power in the House. Cutting spending is hard, especially when the defense budget and Social Security and Medicare are deemed off-limits, because that's where the real money is. It's so much easier to rail against gay marriage and liberal elites wanting to take guns away and drive God out of public life.
Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the National Rifle Association, delivered what appeared to be his stock speech, saying the media exploits grief produced by violence by making it about gun control. He read the names of a dozen Americans, all victims of mass shootings, shaming the media for making their killers famous while they are forgotten. His presentation took on the drama of America's Most Wanted as he played the 911 recording of an unarmed woman trying to resist an armed intruder. How safe, he asked women in the audience, do you feel in a dark parking lot? "And these clowns want to ban magazines? Are you kidding me?"
He left no ambiguity about where the NRA stands on congressional efforts to ban large-size magazine clips like the shooter in Tucson used. He patted himself and his organization on the back for maintaining a "respectful silence" in the face of calls for more of what he considers ineffective laws that penalize law-abiding gun owners. "As soon as you leave this hotel, your life is in jeopardy," he said, reciting a laundry list of alarming statistics on the number of Americans who would soon be murdered, maimed, robbed and forcibly raped. He showed a clip out of Cairo with a correspondent reporting on the breakdown in order, and how Egyptians were taking matters into their own hands. "The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun," he said.
There was a lot of talk at CPAC about American exceptionalism, and how the elites in Washington, Manhattan, and San Francisco don't believe in it, and how President Obama doesn't command respect in the world the way that, say, Ronald Reagan did. Every speaker paid homage to Reagan; on whatever the subject, and sometimes despite the facts, Reagan is the benchmark for success. But when you translate the American specialness conservatives cite into policy, the results can be disquieting. It apparently means more God, with one display inquiring, "Why are you a conservative?" The most succinct response, "Because God is." It means cracking down on immigration, conveniently forgetting that President Reagan signed an amnesty bill, and of course repealing Obama's health-care law, which Iowa Republican Steve King calls a cancer tumor that must be pulled out by its roots and eradicated before it metastasizes.
A panel on "political correctness" in the military assailed the recent overturning of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy on gay soldiers. Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness claimed the survey of troops was faulty because it relied too heavily on respondents who said they knew and had worked with someone who was gay. That, she said, didn't mean they were ready to overturn DADT.
“As soon as you leave this hotel, your life is in jeopardy.”
Ilario Pantano, a former Marine and a fiery speaker, said that America is a Christian nation, and that's being denied because we have to be tolerant of everybody else's worldview. "It's time to start offending and start talking about God's truth," he declared, concluding to thunderous applause, "The ultimate founding document is the Bible."
A panel on immigration featured Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who wants the federal government to stop sending money to "sanctuary cities" like San Francisco that don't enforce immigration laws, and states that give tuition breaks to illegal immigrants. Another panelist deplored the notion of granting citizenship to illegal immigrants in exchange for military service, wondering how you can trust people to defend the country when they broke the law to get here.
The hearts of many CPAC activists seem to be with the social issues, and among the speakers, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is the embodiment of those issues. Santorum, who is running for president, implored the CPAC audience to join with him in an army anyone can join, one in which they don't need a uniform. After his remarks a questioner asked, "We're all ready to fight, but how do we know when we've won?"
When we repeal Obamacare, reduce the size of government, and get the courts to stop attempting to redefine life and marriage, Santorum responded.
A panel in support of traditional marriage featured two of the very few African Americans attending this conference. Michael Faulkner got a big round of applause for having run against Democrat Charles Rangel in the last election. Bishop Harry Jackson of the Hope Christian Church in Maryland implored the audience to seize the opportunity to bring blacks, Hispanics, and others into the conservative movement based on their shared conservative social values. "Don't throw us under the bus, don't push social issues over to the corner," he declared. "Stand with me and decide if this is a multicultural, multiracial movement. We can change America!"
• Howard Kurtz: Romney Tries MockeryHe brought the almost all-white crowd to their feet, and then a questioner brought everyone back to reality. Noting the shared commitment to traditional marriage and the antiabortion agenda that conservatives share with black Americans, she asked, "Where do we lose them?" Faulkner, who lives in Harlem, took a stab at answering. "It's not our values, it's our message.... It's a disconnect we need to work on."
Conservatives built their movement on a set of social issues and have regularly capitalized on them. These issues took a backseat during the 2010 elections, but their power to motivate these voters is undiminished.
Eleanor Clift is a contributing editor for Newsweek.