It didn’t take long at the Values Voter Summit to see why House Republicans feel empowered to drive the country off the cliff if they don’t get their demands.
The four lawmakers who inaugurated the day’s events—Senators Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Marco Rubio of Florida—are all on the Tea Party vanguard of the Republican Party. And Cruz is the pied piper who has used his considerable intellectual gifts to corral conservatives into a suicide run against the Affordable Care Act.
But if the crowd at Values Voter was any indication, they were willing participants. Indeed, if the right wing of the right wing needs a motto, “You only live once” fits the bill. At each point, the audience was eager to punctuate his rhetoric with cheers and applause. “I’m going to suggest a model for how we turn this country around in the next couple of years,” he said, turning the speech—which Cruz gave away from the podium, pacing the stage like a motivational speaker—toward events in Washington, “And it is the model that we have been following together for the last couple of months to stop that train wreck, that disaster, that nightmare that is ‘Obamacare.’”
To the rest of the country, this “model”—of grassroots action and pressure—has been a tremendous failure. According to the most recent poll from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, 53 percent of the public blames the Republican Party for the shutdown, compared to 31 percent who say it’s the president’s fault. American voters now prefer a Democratic Congress over a Republican one, and the GOP’s approval has fallen to its lowest levels in the history of the NBC News survey. At best, the Republican Party walks away from this fight with serious damage to its brand; at worst, this transforms the 2014 political landscape and gives Democrats a shot at protecting their Senate majority, and taking the House of Representatives.
At the Values Voter Summit, however, it was hard to find conservatives who thought Cruz (and Lee) had gone wrong with their strategy. Jack Tyman, who had come to D.C. from Naples, Fla., thought the Texas senator had done the United States a favor. “Cruz,” he said, “is not hurting this country.” (At this exact moment, a woman walked by and yelled—presumably to her friend—that Ted Cruz “was going to be president one day.”)
Patti and Jack Robertson—a couple from Florida—were also enamored of Cruz, “You can feel his passion for the American people,” said Patti. They were almost the prototypical Republican voters: Older, white, professional, and highly civically engaged. Patti, in fact, bragged that she made phone calls to every senator to support the push to defund the Affordable Care Act.
As far as rhetoric went, it wasn’t just Cruz. Rand Paul didn’t talk Obamacare, but he did indulge the persecution complex and anti-Muslim bigotry of a certain subset of conservative evangelical Christians, all represented at the conference, “The truth is, a worldwide war on Christians is being waged by a fanatical element of Islam.”
And to Paul, Obama is complicit in the violence: “Two Christian bishops have been kidnapped, and one priest was recently killed. These rebels are allies of the Islamic rebels that President Obama is now arming.” The rhetorical back-and-forth between Obama and “radical Islam” was so common that it wasn’t hard to get the impression that Paul—a “reformer”—was trying to tacitly tie the president to Islamic extremism, and play to the well-aired belief that Obama is a Muslim.
Marco Rubio had his fun as well, giving a speech that was soaked in conservative resentment. “On issue after issue, on issue after issue, they are expected to be tolerant of others, but increasingly our culture’s intolerant of them,” he said. And one of the concluding speakers—a talk-radio host named Sandy Rios—gave a lengthy denunciation of homosexuality, going as far as to call the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard a “fairytale.”
Again, none of this was challenged by the audience. And potentially as a consequence, the claims became more outrageous. When Ben Carson—a recent conservative celebrity—was reaching for a way to describe the Affordable Care Act, he immediately went to the nuclear bomb of tasteless analogies. “Obamacare is really, I think, the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery,” said the African-American doctor. The crowd response? Cheers. The same was true when Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann attacked the Affordable Care Act as “Deathcare” for Americans.
It was pure, unbridled, conservative id. And it was celebrated. Moreover, as we’re seeing now, no one in the mainstream of the Republican Party is going to challenge it. Indeed, it’s hard to think anyone will even try to co-op it. Instead, like Mitt Romney in last year’s elections, the “establishment” of the GOP will bend to it, and adopt its positions and affect, in a desperate attempt to retain its allegiance.
That, however, might be a fool’s errand. Before the group dismissed for dinner and book signings, former Pennsylvania senator—and Republican presidential candidate—Rick Santorum gave a speech emphasizing the importance of culture, publicizing his new movie, and pillorying the Republican Party for nominating moderates: “We will start winning elections when we nominate people who are authentic,” where authenticity is another word for rigid conservatism.
This revanchist minority is angry, unsatisfied, and ready to fight. It’s easy to mock the Values Voter Summit as a hub for extremism, but these are the voters who are driving the shutdown. They have a powerful grip on the Republican Party, and the damage of this confrontation has done nothing to weaken it.