Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Recent years have seen a proliferation of right-wing activist meetings unmatched on the left. The result: a fired-up base for the GOP.

Why Are There So Many Conservative Conferences?

By Molly Ball
Recent years have seen a proliferation of right-wing activist meetings unmatched on the left. The result: a fired-up base for the GOP.
Last Friday morning, the conservative author and commentator Jonah Goldberg began his day with a speech to the Faith and Freedom Coalition's annual conference, a gathering of more than 1,000 social-conservative activists in Washington, D.C. After delivering his fiery address on the evils of liberalism to a packed and attentive hotel ballroom, he headed for the airport -- bound for Las Vegas to address another conservative confab, the RightOnline convention of conservative bloggers.
"It does seem like these things are proliferating," Goldberg, whose willingness to travel is enhanced by the fact that he has a new book to promote, mused in an interview upon his return to D.C. on an unpleasant red-eye flight. Even with the book-tour imperative as motivation, the ceaseless circuit of sometimes overlapping gatherings can get to be too much. Goldberg had turned down an invitation to speak in Chicago the previous weekend at a spinoff of the Conservative Political Action Conference, which this year undertook an expansion to supplement its yearly extravaganza in Washington with regional versions in the South, Midwest and West. "These things," Goldberg observed, "are all over the place."
The past few years have seen an explosion of conservative get-togethers, a ceaseless national circuit of weekend meetups packed with speeches, strategy sessions, panel discussions, dinners and parties. The Faith and Freedom conference, now in its third year, in many ways duplicates the Values Voter Summit put on each fall by the Family Research Council. RightOnline, begun in 2008 to counter the liberal YearlyKos (now Netroots Nation), has analogues in the BlogCon and RedState gatherings. And upstart conventions put on by tea party groups or grassroots activists seem to spring up all the time. To make his appearance at CPAC Chicago earlier this month, Herman Cain had to cancel his appearance at the Conservative Leadership Conference in Las Vegas, while conservative news outlets found themselves pulled between those two and the concurrent Future of Journalism Summit being put on in Providence by the Heritage Foundation and the Franklin Center. "I can hardly keep up with them all," marveled Jerri Ann Henry, who handles digital outreach for the political PR firm JDA Frontline.
There are activist gatherings for the left -- Netroots is the big one, the liberal CPAC if there is one (this year's program featured Keith Olbermann and Elizabeth Warren). A nine-year-old progressive gathering, the Take Back the American Dream conference, was getting under way in Washington on Monday. But for Democrats, there has been nowhere near the proliferation of candidate cattle calls and ideologically oriented activist confabs recently seen on the right.
The conservative conference programs always seem to feature the same few dozen right-wing commentators and media stars -- figures such as Grover Norquist, Scott Rasmussen, Michelle Malkin and S.E. Cupp -- as well as conservative politicians looking to test their mojo before a national audience. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, all thought to have their eye on a national ticket someday, have recently surfaced on convention programs far from their home states, as have Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who are presumably looking to stay nationally relevant after falling short of the presidential nomination. (Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, fresh off his recall election victory, looked to be taking a victory lap by speaking at the Faith and Freedom conference this past weekend, but he didn't show -- an aide said Walker's appearance, though advertised on the event's program, was never confirmed -- leaving his lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, to speak and collect an award in his stead.)
The sudden flowering of conservative meetups appears to be organic -- the result of a plethora of activist groups jockeying for attention and influence. "It's the difference between a central-planning hierarchy and a more Hayekian, million-flowers-blooming philosophy," posited Matt Lewis, a writer for the Daily Caller and frequent conservative-conference panelist.
And there appears to be plenty of audience demand, despite the seeming danger that the marketplace is becoming too crowded. CPAC Chicago drew 2,000 attendees, while 1,500 attended all or part of Faith and Freedom. Tickets for the latter ranged in price from $35 (for students who skipped the banquet) to $224 (for the full program, starting with Thursday's luncheon featuring Rubio); that covered some meals, but not travel or hotel costs for the attendees, many of whom came from far and wide.
For Marvin and Barbara Asmus, octogenarians from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, the Faith and Freedom gathering was an excuse for a vacation to Washington as well as an opportunity to be around like-minded people. They came a few days early to take in such sights as the Newseum, the Spy Museum and the National Cathedral. "We're Christians and we're conservatives, in that order," said Marvin, a retired spice importer in a plaid suit. "It's encouraging being with so many like-minded people. You couldn't get in an argument around here no matter how hard you tried." The pair, who supported Santorum during the primaries, said they would leave Washington freshly inspired to work to get Mitt Romney elected. "Glenn Beck brought me to tears," Barbara confessed. "I have got to do more to get my three children involved in politics."
If there is a tinge of profiteering or self-promotion to the welter of political exhibitions, their organizers say it is all in service of the cause. "In spite of the amazing lineup of speakers, the main focus is really on training and equipping grass-roots activists to go back to their respective states, organize at the precinct level, and educate, persuade, mobilize, register and turn out voters," Faith and Freedom Coalition Chairman Ralph Reed told me. He noted that the Washington conference was supplemented by forums held in half a dozen states. While Reed allowed there was probably some duplication between his event and the Values Voter Summit, he said there was no animosity between the two: Tony Perkins, whose organization sponsors Values Voter, spoke on the Faith and Freedom program.
The constant conferencing has some obvious upsides for the conservative movement. It helps keep the base engaged, enthused, and working to build the kind of grassroots organization that has historically been Democrats' stronger suit. And while the flood of invitations can be wearying for Republican politicians, who must carefully pick and choose appearances based on whom they wish to appeal to and what message they hope to send, it's also a valuable opportunity for officeholders with their eyes on bigger things to build a profile outside their home states.
In his address to the conference's concluding banquet, Reed sketched an expansive vision for his group's influence: Lobbyists at all 50 state legislatures, 5 million members, a $100 million annual budget. During this year's elections, he proclaimed, Faith and Freedom plans to build a database of more than 25 million social conservative voters, then contact each of them seven to 12 times -- with mailers, phone calls, emails, text messages and door knocks -- to make sure they vote.
The mingling, the speeches, the chicken dinners -- that's all well and good. But at the end of the day, Reed made clear, it's about Republicans winning.
"We're not just playing around. We're not just shadowboxing," said Reed, whose rise as head of the Christian Coalition in the 1990s was derailed somewhat by his involvement in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. The Faith and Freedom Coalition represents Reed's political comeback, and it's clear that his natural affinity for this type of work has not diminished.
"We're playing for keeps," he added. "We're playing for the biggest prize in the history of the human race -- that's the United States of America -- and we are not going to lose."
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His campaign has distilled its message to its purest possible essence, and with remarkable discipline and clarity that essence came through in every comment at every stop, by Romney and every one of his traveling associates: former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, plus current Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey and Governor Tom Corbett. The pure message is: - The president said he would fix the economy; - He didn't; - Give us a try.Or as James Carville might have put it, "It's the economy, stupid."

Postcards from the Bus-Capade: Romney Road Report

By James Fallows

Some scenes from this weekend's Romney for America bus tour through hard-pressed (but very beautiful) areas of small-town Pennsylvania. 

At a WaWa, in Quakertown -- where Romney ordered a hoagie and mixed with the crowd. That is The Bus in the background.Thumbnail image for RomneyAtBus.jpg

Romney on the stump, at a historic iron furnace in Cornwall, near Lebanon, using the hoagie-ordering experience at the WaWa as a parable for what's right and wrong in America. (Wrong: a doctor told him that he had to fill out a 33-page change-of-address form, several times, to get the post office to send his mail -- including reimbursement checks -- to his new location. That is what happens with government-run organizations where you have "no competition." Right: at WaWa, great hoagies. Also, very efficient touch-pad ordering system. This is what you get with competition.)

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The shop at Weatherly Casting, south of Hazleton, where he talked about the need to reclaim America's industrial greatness, etc.:

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The substance of this trip is for an upcoming article in the magazine; thus, there will be very little activity in this space for the next few days. Snapshot points:1) Typical comment from (age-appropriate) female members of the crowd as Romney mingled: "Oh, he is even better looking in real life!" If slighter in build than you would guess from TV -- in sporting terms, more like a lightweight rower than a tight end -- Romney has perfect-posture carriage, a very strong jaw, and (as with Bill Clinton) a large head that makes him seem bigger than his actual size. There is no doubt that he is a very good-looking man, especially for age 65.  Thumbnail image for WMRinPA.jpg 

2) His campaign has distilled its message to its purest possible essence, and with remarkable discipline and clarity that essence came through in every comment at every stop, by Romney and every one of his traveling associates: former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, plus current Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey and Governor Tom Corbett. The pure message is:   - The president said he would fix the economy;   - He didn't;   - Give us a try. Or as James Carville might have put it, "It's the economy, stupid." You can tell when campaigns have figured out their theme, and how to express it -- and how to get the crowds to react. At least for now this campaign has figured those things out. The Obama team is crazy if they take anything for granted in this election.3) Romney's trademark small-talk exclamation, "Oh my goodness!" seems completely genuine. But I am trying to think of the last time I heard a 21st-century person use that phrase -- as opposed to all the other possibilities, which when you think about it range from coarse to profane. (Jeez louise, WTF, Holy shit, and on through a long list you can fill in yourself.) When combined with his Don-Draper-in-the-'50s very dapper personal style, it adds to a retro atmosphere that some people will find reassuring and appealing and others will find odd. More on this anon. [Update John McWhorter has an interesting piece on this antique turn of Romney's phrasing, in TNR. Thanks to Yair Rosenberg for pointing it out.]__Later this week, I will have updates on a number of subjects readers have written in about. I will also talk about the nature of email itself, which over the past year I've come to view in a different way. But only after I've finished this next article. 
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Americans' view of high finance is at a historic low. Most Americans feel stuck in the recession. And Romney campaigns as the businessman who can restore America's fortune, despite disdain for the industry that made his fortune.

Why Obama Is Struggling to Paint Romney 

as a Wall Street Fat Cat

                                    By David Paul Kuhn                             
Americans have a dim view of the financial sector, but they're even more skeptical of the government the president heads.
Last week, Barack Obama's super PAC released its latest ad framing Mitt Romney as a de-industrial profiteer. A working man stands outside a vacant plant and says, "Romney and Bain Capital shut this place down. They shut down entire livelihoods."
Meanwhile, reports seemed to affirm Obama's strategy. "Obama's attacks on Romney's Bain Capital past may be paying off," read a Saturday Daily News headline. We still don't know if that's actually true. But this is one executive position where Wall Street-like experience doesn't help. Americans' view of high finance is at a historic low. Most Americans feel stuck in the recession. And Romney campaigns as the businessman who can restore America's fortune, despite disdain for the industry that made his fortune.
Romney would be, if elected, the first financier president. He would also be among the wealthiest. Presidents are almost always rich men. But few presidents have been fabulously rich in their own right. If Romney wins, he would rank as one of two wealthiest presidents since the colonial era, perhaps exceeded by only George Washington.
Of course, the country chose a privileged son to lead it out of the Great Depression. But Franklin Roosevelt's wealth did not derive from the same financial industry stained by the crash. So Romney presents an interesting test of economic populism in American life: Voters will turn against incumbents in hard times. But will some swing voters refuse to turn to an alternative who embodies the class that brought the economy to the brink?
Romney presents himself as the businessman who can turn America around. Therefore, naturally, both sides will fight until Election Day to define Romney's business. It's "job creator" versus "job destroyer."
Democrats have the harder task. A survey spurred reports that the Bain strategy was "paying off."PurplePoll found Americans believe private equity firms "hurt" workers more than they "help" the economy by a 47 to 38 percent margin -- and independent voters shared the same view.
But Romney has not paid for that image. Fifty-eight percent of independents say Romney has the "right kind of business experience to reduce the unemployment rate and improve the economy," according to a CNN poll. Only 17 percent of voters overall, in a Fox News poll, term Romney's work at Bain a "bad thing."
Romney the financier is vulnerable. Two-thirds of Americans believe Romney would "do more" than Obama "to advance the economic interests of wealthy Americans," according to an ABC News-Washington Post poll.
But Romney can lose the compassion race and still win the election. Democrats are usually seen as more sympathetic -- ask Al Gore or Michael Dukakis how that worked out. It's the size of Romney's empathy gap that could count. The public believes Obama better understands "the problems faced by ordinary Americans" by a 20-percentage point margin, according to the CNN poll.
It's not business, it's personal. Democrats must brand Romney, really the inner man, with the worst image of his business. Making him seem cold is not enough -- in fact, cold can win. The majority of Americans question the cost of political "warmth" today.
Instead, Obama must define Romney as Republicans often define Democrats -- by relentlessly casting Romney as an elitist. If the Bain gambit can work, it can only do so as full-throated populism, by painting Romney as not only a super-rich elitist but also the boss who "fires you" rather than "hires you." So the Bain strategy does not depend on attacking Romney's qualifications but defining him as a man who lacks presidential qualities. It depends less on Romney's fortune than the perception of how he made it.
 At first blush, it seems so easy for the left: define Romney as a greedy moneyman, or as "The Man" closing down industrial America.
It's a myth that Americans measure success by money alone. The American paragon is not the rich man but the "self-made man" (or woman). Nearly nine in 10 Americans say they "admire people who get rich by working hard;" only 27 percent say they "admire people who are rich," according to a Pew Research Center poll.
The last president to rival Romney's wealth was this sort of self-made man. Herbert Hoover rose from pushing ore carts in Nevada to developing mines worldwide, amassing some $93 million in today's dollars. Romney's net worth is between $190 and $255 million, though he carries less economic power than Hoover's fortune did in his day. Hoover was also a blacksmith's son. Romney's father was an auto executive and governor. But the younger Romney made his own fortune. The debate is over how and at whose expense.
Romney's job at Bain was to make wealthy investors wealthier. Bain required a $1 million minimum investment to participate. Those funds helped develop success stories like Staples. It often meant downsizing as well. Romney's investors generally profited whether the investment did or not.
At first blush, it seems so easy for the left: define Romney as a greedy moneyman, or as "The Man" closing down industrial America. His persona evokes the worst stereotypes of his party and plutocracy. It's reminiscent of John Kerry. Recall Kerry's Boston Brahmin manner and his reference to "Lambert Field."
Kerry's personal net worth, in 2004, was roughly equivalent to Romney's. But if Kerry's assets were combined his wife's fortune, and he won, Kerry probably would have been the wealthiest president ever. Republicans battered Kerry for it. One conservative group spoofed MasterCard's "priceless" commercial. To violins, the ad catalogued the cost of Kerry's haircut ($75), shirts ($250), yacht ($1 million), and mansions ($30 million). It closed: "Another rich liberal elitist from Massachusetts who claims he's a man of the people...priceless."
Kerry fit the image of the "limousine liberal." Cultural populists had a near-ideal antagonist. Economist populists have the same in Romney. Political attacks stick when they confirm preconceived conceptions. Americans still see Republicans as the party of the rich and have, according to polls, for at least a half-century.
This makes Romney an awkward GOP advocate. For example, he opposes ending the hedge-fund tax loophole. That's par for the Republican course, but the loophole also enriches Romney personally. He earned about $21 million annually, in the past two years, at a tax rate of about 14 and 15 percent.
And there are those words. Obama has his gaffes (e.g., "the private sector is doing fine") but Romney's verbal missteps have repeatedly played into Democratic strategies -- "I like firing people," "I'm also unemployed," "I'm not concerned about the very poor." A new anti-Romney Spanish language adcontrasts these words against the times.
But will populism, even today, sway a famously capitalistic electorate?
Americans have a populist streak. Three-quarters of the public believe that "there is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies." About six in 10 Americans "disagree" that "corporations generally strike a fair balance between making profits and serving the public interest,"according to Pew.
These views have remained steady for decades, however. If this is a populist moment, it's not a matter of shifting perceptions but shifting context. In April, three quarters of Americans told pollsters the nation was "still in a recession." The economy has worsened since.
That has cast a pall over Wall Street. A slim majority value Wall Street's role, but in practice only 36 percent believe it "helps" the economy more than it "hurts." Nearly three quarters of Americans agree that "Wall Street only cares about making money for itself," according to Pew polls. Democrats must brand Romney with that image.
Yet the advocate affects the argument, and that's why Obama struggles to seize this context. The president flirts with populism but he privately presented himself to financial titans as the man between them and the pitchforks.
Obama did win Wall Street reform, albeit reform lite. And Romney vows to repeal the Dodd-Frank law. But Obama cannot easily argue he's firmly on one side of that debate. He was Wall Street's favorite investment in 2008. And although financial-sector employees have donated millions of dollars more to Romney's side this time, Obama remains too close to the Street to make a pure case against it. On the same day he launched an ad attacking Romney's work at Bain, the president was at a top financier's Manhattan home, fundraising at a $35,800-a-head dinner.
Obama is left with the worst of both worlds. Americans see him as too close to Wall Street, while much of Wall Street now sees him as too close to the populists.
Romney may exude high finance. And nearly a third of independent voters, Gallup has found, blame financial institutions for America's economic problems.
But the same poll found that they blame government more, by a two-to-one margin. Obama personifies that government. Likewise, Romney's business record might weaken him in key states like Ohio; the PurplePoll found that views of financial firms were more negative in Ohio than nationwide. But the same survey placed Romney ahead in the state.
Unless the dynamic of 2012 changes, it could come down to the fact that in a contest between men who embody unpopular establishments, only one establishment is actually on the ballot.
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The political analysis of Obama's immigration move has largely focused on his potential for gains among Hispanic voters vs. his potential to to alienate white working-class voters. But depending on how Republicans respond, Obama could also win friends among the evangelical community -- which constitutes, according to Land, 29 percent of the electorate

Praise for Obama on Immigration From the Religious Right

By Molly Ball
Some right-wing evangelical Christians, usually no fans 
of the president, are applauding his move to 
halt deportations of young illegal immigrants.

They are convinced President Obama is waging a devastating war on religion and systematically undermining the institutions of the family. But on Friday, some in the religious right found reason to praise Obama: his move to halt the deportations of young illegal immigrants.
"I applaud it," Richard Land, the prominent evangelical Christian leader who heads the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said in an interview. "I would have preferred Congress to have done it. I hope that Congress would applaud it and pass something very similar."
Just minutes earlier, Land had been addressing a conservative conference panel entitled "Obama's War on Religious Liberty." As I approached him to ask about immigration, he was busy inveighing to another reporter about the godless secular society Obama is bent on creating. But Land and others on the Christian right part ways with some of their Republican brethren when it comes to immigration, and they have been increasingly vocal about their views on the issue, which they see as one of universal human dignity.
Land was part of a nonpartisan group of immigration-reform advocates who held a news conference on Capitol Hill earlier this week calling on both parties to work toward a solution on the issue and vowing to "build political will in the pews" by reaching out to congregations across the nation. The group, which also included the president of the social-conservative group Focus on the Family, issued a statement of principles that included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
The political analysis of Obama's immigration move has largely focused on his potential for gains among Hispanic voters vs. his potential to to alienate white working-class voters. But depending on how Republicans respond, Obama could also win friends among the evangelical community -- which constitutes, according to Land, 29 percent of the electorate -- for his stance. (Mitt Romney's response Friday was a statement that seemed to skirt the issue, calling for a "long-term" solution enacted through legislation without weighing in definitively on whether and how such youths should get legal status; he had previously said he would veto the DREAM Act, on which Obama's executive action was modeled.)
Land, for his part, called on Republicans to back up the president on this issue -- not words he often finds himself uttering. Romney "ought to applaud what the president has done and call upon Congress to enact legislation that would put it into force of law," he said. "These are innocent people -- 800,000 to 1 million young people who were brought here by their parents and often have no memory of their country of origin. They want to be here, they want to get educated, to be more productive citizens. They want to serve in the military. I'm trying to figure out, what's the problem?
"The country is ahead of its elected leaders on this issue," Land added. "It's time for the elected leaders to quit acting like politicians concerned about the next election and start acting like statesmen concerned about the next generation."
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