To make good on my promise to discuss the appearances of the rest of the GOP hopefuls that attended the 2015 Values Voter Summit last week, I’m going to outline the impact they had and the points they scored or didn’t score with the evangelical Republican audiences gathered at the event – a segment representing a quarter of GOP potential voters. I say ‘potential voters’ and if you wonder what I mean by that, ask Mitt Romney, whose election bid was torpedoed in large part by evangelicals who were no-shows at the voting booth. There is no sub segment of the Republican voting base that is more fragmented at the current moment than evangelicals / social conservatives.
In Part 1 of this column, I dissected Donald Trump’s speech, which as is typical, was not a speech, or even a Ted talk, but a schmoozy, rambling discourse aimed at selling himself as just slightly less omniscient than God, and leaving no stone unturned in belittling his rivals. It got me kicked off of at least one Facebook group. I wasn’t terribly surprised, as I had been poking the Trump supporting element in the eyeballs ever since he entered the race. It was disappointing that some people are so intellectually insecure and phobic about information that might cause them any degree of cognitive dissonance.
In this, the Tea Party – or at least the contingent among it that I describe, has no distinctive characteristics of which they might boast that separate them from their antagonists in the Democrat party and other liberals. If you dare point out the public nudity of their beloved anointed, you will be castigated as a troll, a traitor, a socialist, a Marxist, possibly a Communist and even in some cases, the most dreadful sobriquet – a liberal! These are the churlish right wing equivalents of the Democrats’ pet disparagements, racist, bigot, nativist and xenophobe. Those are the only ones I can repeat among polite company.
The other GOP social conservative oriented candidates that accepted the Family Research Council’s invitation to speak, were Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Ted Cruz – plus a couple of bottom dwellers, Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal, who may be sooner than later, exiting the race.
I’ll begin with Ben Carson. I like Ben Carson as a person, and he has a certain appeal with me. He gives the impression of cautiously gathering information and developing an informed opinion. The only policy issue that he has taken complete ownership of is Obamacare. As a doctor, that makes sense. He has his ear to the ground and has a very good street level understanding of how the so-called “Affordable Care Act” is impacting the quality, accessibility and costs of healthcare – aside from the propaganda emanating from the White House and the compliant mass media.
There is really not much new insight on Ben Carson that could be gleaned from his comments to the VVS crowd. He was well received, but not riotously so. But there was a very peculiar development at VVS 2105, that I would like to briefly touch as a lead in, before I discuss Marco Rubio – the appearance of Arizona Senator John McCain.
What was McCain doing at this event? McCain is not an opponent of the continued funding of Planned Parenthood and has on numerous occasions dismissed the very element of the GOP that attendees of VVS represent as “wacko birds” and “crazies”. McCain, who has one of the worst actors in the Veteran’s Administration neglect scandal in his own state, but for the longest stretch, stood on the sidelines as a spectator; has no credibility on any facet of either Veteran’s issues or even for that matter, foreign policy – which he spent considerable time droning on about in his utterances before the group.
McCain has a lengthy resume of support and advocacy of foreign policy failures. His prescriptions for success in the Middle East – propping up “allies” that have betrayed their own people, with abominable human rights records and his promotion of regime change has made the entire region less stable and overall more dangerous within and without. But, I suspect that his appearance at the event was a happy convergence of two motives – one, to signal that he intends to yet again run for re-election to the Senate and two – he was probably invited by the Rubio campaign.
McCain and fellow neo-con defense hawk, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, consider Rubio as their apprentice and proxy candidate, even though Graham will pursue a brief vanity run to claim delegates in his home state next year. Senator McCain took a moment to compliment John Boehner, an individual who a majority among the GOP base consider to be a traitor to their cherished causes. Of Boehner, McCain described himself as a “great admirer” and said, “I think he’s a fine man. And I hope that now the Republican Party will join together and sit down and try to resolve our differences.”
McCain himself, even anticipated the bewilderment of some of the VVS 2015 summit goers, in commenting, “Listening to a former, unsuccessful candidate from two presidential elections ago – which is practically a century in Washington years — probably isn’t your first priority.”
Rubio’s talk before the attendees centered on his consistent and at this point, well worn ‘immigrant comes to America and succeeds’ story and was drenched in the implied, Hispanic family values theme. A theme that his former mentor, Jeb Bush is much more explicit about. Rubio told the VVS audience:
As a Christian, I am taught from the earliest days of my life that I’m supposed to model Jesus Christ, God made man, and that means I’m supposed to care for the less fortunate. That’s supposed to mean that I’m supposed to try to be humble, that there’s strength in weakness, that the meek shall inherit the earth —
There was no reason to interpret the emphasis on humility as anything other than a shrewd and well conceived arrow at the pomposity, arrogance and narcissism of Donald Trump. Rubio made a big hit with the crowd with another part of his presentation:
I’m often reminded by people that I don’t come from privilege. And the truth is if by privilege they mean wealth and power, that’s true. I didn’t inherit any money from my parents. But I nonetheless believe that I actually do come from extraordinary privilege, because I’m the citizen — I’m a citizen of the single greatest nation in all of human history — (cheers, applause) — a nation founded on the fundamental belief that every person has a God-given right to go as far as their talent and their work will take them; a nation founded — a nation who says to us that even the son of a bartender and a maid could have the same dreams and the same opportunities as someone who is born into wealth and into power.
It’s likely that the Rubio campaign, aside from positioning him as a proponent of aggressive, muscular and provocative foreign policy (to maintain pace with non-attendee Carly Fiorina), will continue to use the “immigrant family makes good” theme his signature theme going forward in the campaign. Will it wear thin after a while, is anyone’s guess at this point.
Former Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee indulged in yet another competing narrative about the rags to riches American dream story that featured his family:
I’ve been blessed to live in this country. I’m grateful to God that I was born by His grace in the United States of America. And this country has been awfully good to me and I’ve been able to do things that my parents and grandparents never could conceive. The fact is I grew up, like probably some of you, dirt-poor. And my dad never finished high school. His dad didn’t. And his dad before him didn’t. I’m the first in my male ever to do — first male in my family ever to do that, much less going to college. I’ve lived the American dream. I didn’t just read about it.
Huckabee used this as a launching pad to proclaim his intention to make his grandchildren’s futures secure from the continued erosion of the American empire at the hands of the Washington establishment. He also attempted to capture some of the political “outsider” love that Carson, Fiorina and Trump have been joyriding in:
I’ve never had a Washington, D.C. address ever in my life, never lived here. I’ve never had a paycheck from this town. People say, we want an outsider. Well, you can have one — (laugher) — because I’ve never lived here, I’ve never worked here, I’ve never had a paycheck here, but I do understand that simply making a speech is not leadership.
But Huckabee redeemed the time by highlighting policy matters that were amenable to the VVS attendees, zeroing in on an outline of an energy policy and the Iran Nuclear treaty. Huckabee criticized Hillary Clinton on her rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline:
We ought to be working on not just exploring the energy that we have under our feet — hundreds of years of it — but we ought to become the number-one exporter of energy and put Putin, the Iranians and the Saudis out of the energy business. (Cheers, applause.) We ought to be supplying Europe, Africa and Asia with Energy. (Applause.) Because in doing that, we not only upset the balance of world power and make it where they don’t have the money to move into Crimea, Ukraine and build nuclear devices and fund madrassas to teach terrorists how to fly into buildings, but we start making it possible for Americans to have those energy jobs and not some Saudi prince getting filthy rich off of it. And another thing that happens, we make it so that a lot of Americans get the best pay raise they’ve ever had become some single mom out there who straps a couple of kids into car seats and drops them off at daycare and then has to go to work and go back and pick them up — if we could permanently get the cost of her gasoline from $3 a gallon down to $1 a gallon, we’ve just given her the biggest pay raise she’s ever had. (Cheers, applause.)
He also hit on some populist themes that are picking up traction with likely GOP voters, one of which is corporate socialism and the political elites that are promoting it while feathering their nests, renigging on promises to shrink government and failing to rescue the rule of law. The Supreme Court’s judicial activism and the Planned Parenthood travesty were also objects of Huckabee’s scorn.
Huckabee was high energy, personable, injected his trademark comic zingers and made his best case to be the choice of social conservatives, despite the fact that, up until now, Trump has pulled more of them into his sphere than would seem logical – especially given Trump’s seemingly conspicuous inauthenticity as anything that resembles a So Con.
The candidate that brought the strongest game to the VVS, was Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz understands, possibly better than any of the other GOP contestants, how to deliver a high impact message tailored to the emotional frame of a specific audience.
This specific audience heard a “Ted Talk” about Planned Parenthood and the Little Sisters of the Poor and a host of other issues near and dear to them. In this setting, Ted was in his rousing sermon mode, yet made everything feel spontaneous and personal. Among Cruz’ opening comments was a tip of the hat to both Tony Perkins, director of the Family Research Council, the Values Voter Summit audience and an artful jab at outgoing House Speaker John Boehner and the GOP establishment of which Cruz has become a feared enemy combatant:
I am so honored to be back with so many friends today. (Cheers, applause.) I want to say, my friend Tony Perkins, the Family Research Council, does incredible work in this country. (Cheers, applause.) You want to talk about a strong, principled, conservative who scares the living daylights out of Washington. But I have to tell you, Tony doesn’t scare Washington nearly as much as the men and women gathered in this ballroom do. (Applause.) You want to know how much each of you terrify Washington? Yesterday, John Boehner was speaker of the House. (Cheers, applause.) Y’all come to town, and somehow that changes. (Cheers, applause.) My own request is can you come more often? (Cheers, applause.) Tony, we need to schedule these weekly — once a week. (Cheers, applause.)
Cruz, reeled off a dizzying list of objects and entities that he intends to confront on move in day at the Oval Office. The Iran Nuclear agreement, Obamacare, Taxes, defense spending, government constraints on religious liberty, debt and excessive spending, and un-armed military recruiters, to name a few. Of Barack Obama’s executive actions, Cruz said.
The first thing I intend to do is rescind every single illegal and unconstitutional executive action. (Cheers, applause.) The president tells us he’s got a phone and he’s got a pen. Well, you live by the pen you die by the pen. (Cheers, applause.) And my pen has got an eraser. (Laughter, applause.) But sadly, the corruption’s not been limited to the White House. It has extended across every agency of the federal government.
Cruz ramped up his customarily moderate and balanced foreign policy rhetoric, seizing the opportunity to focus a laser pointer at Hillary Clinton in issuing the heated declaration:
I got to tell you, I can’t wait to stand on a debate stage next to Hillary Clinton — (cheers, applause) — and to make very clear to the American people, if you vote for Hillary, you are voting for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. (Applause.) And if you vote for me, under no circumstance will a nation led by a theocratic ayatollah who chants death to America, under no circumstances will Iran be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons.
There were a couple more participants in the event, that I apologetically decline to go into any detail discussing, due to the fact that for better or worse, they are so much in the margins in this race now, that they are of little consequence in the overall discussion – former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.
So, who did the VVS 2015 attendees conclude to be the most impressive among the group they saw last weekend? Ted Cruz won the VVS straw poll with 35% of the votes (once again for the third straight time), Ben Carson took about half that number at 18%, Huckabee got 14%, Rubio – 13% and Donald Trump brought up the rear with just 5% – a result that he likely won’t be touting on campaign stops and media engagements such as his rapprochement with Fox News and interview with Bill O’Reilly last night. Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina – both no shows, garnered only 1% and 3% respectively.
Ted Cruz is the candidate that holds the most upside potential and steady momentum going forward in the nomination race – especially if the Trump burn out factor that we are beginning to see, holds course. Cruz has been wisely pacing himself while simultaneously ramping up his intensity in speeches and interviews.
This, as they say, is a marathon not a sprint.