Christian right looks to debt, economic worries for 2010 election

WASHINGTON — As the fourth annual Values Voter Summit wound down, Benjamin Paulding found a seat near the lobby to relax and reflect. An 18-year-old student who was studying accounting at an online university, he had arrived under a cloud. He was leaving in a much better mood.

Values Voter Summit 2009 (Photo by: David Weigel)

Values Voter Summit 2009 (Photo by: David Weigel)

“I had been thinking that unless God turns something around, the nation was doomed,” said Paulding. “I think our doom is delayed now, because America is awakening. We woke up late, but we’re going to able to make a difference now.”

Paulding’s new optimism wasn’t limited to the way Americans might turn against abortion or against gay marriage, even though multiple speakers at the two-day conference (a third day was limited to a morning worship session) had deployed deceptively positive poll numbers to argue that most voters now agreed that “abortion is immoral” or that same-sex marriage should remain illegal. He was increasingly convinced that his country was ready to turn away from the economic policies of President Barack Obama and the congressional Democrats.

“Taxes are going to end up going up, especially if the health care bill passes,” said Paulding. “And all the debt–if you do the math it would cost $438,000 for each household to pay off the debt right now,” he said, quoting a number he’d researched on his own.

Paulding’s worries were reflected throughout the summit, in the halls and in the speeches from the main stage. While the second day of the conference was given over to more overtly social conservative causes than the first, from activists who demanded the “defunding” of Planned Parenthood, campaigning to ban gay marriage, and working in general to “save” the hearts and minds of fellow Americans, it also cemented a move toward economic and constitutional worries. Attendee after attendee told TWI that the size of the national debt and what they perceived as an abandonment of the Constitution’s original intent were worrying them as much as the assault on their values.

“For the Christian right, this needed to happen,” said Jamie Johnson, an Iowa activist who runs the conservative Faith and Freedom Network in that state, and who fell short in a 2008 bid for local office. “The shock of having a far-left president has awakened many who only thought about two issues.” Those issues had been gay rights and abortion. “They realize now that the founding fathers cared about many issues related to liberty and security and prosperity.”

“It started when Bush was still president,” said Johnson’s father Fred, attending the conference with him for the second consecutive year. “Most of us common people were thinking, ‘We play by the rules, and we provide for our families, and we have to bail out these folks because they were irresponsible?’”

The merger of mainstream Republican Party rhetoric and the priorities of “Christian right” activists happened naturally for people like Johnson and Paulding. It was also politically astute for a wing of the conservative movement that had, in recent years, become somewhat toxic. In a bland speech notable for its sudden embrace of economic populism, former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) told the crowd that “just across the river, the signs are good that we’re about to see a low tax, pro-growth, pro-life government of Virginia.” He was referring to Robert McDonnell, a former Virginia attorney general whose commanding position in the off-year gubernatorial election has been endangered since The Washington Post reported on a 1989 thesis about a possible ultraconservative “family agenda” which McDonnell handed into Pat Robertson’s Regent University. Hours after Romney spoke, the newspaper released a poll showing McDonnell’s poll lead slipping from 15 points to four points.

Romney’s speech did not exactly electrify the Summit. Unlike most of the politicians who appeared before the respectful crowd, he used a TelePrompTer–its presence in the Saturday morning session inspired barbs from Family Research Council emcee Gil Mertz and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), both of whom joked that the speech-making technology must have been there for President Obama. (Obama’s alleged inability to speak without a text is a popular conservative meme.) An unscientific straw poll of attendees found only 12.4 percent of them favoring a Romney nomination in 2012, less than half of the support found for former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.).

But if Romney didn’t have his “finger on the pulse” of Values Voters–as FRC’s Tony Perkins said of Huckabee–he got close the model for their rhetoric and political agenda. The overarching problem with the Obama administration, Romney argued, was that “big government activists” were “substitut[ing] their ideology for the wisdom and good sense of the American people.”

Even the activists who focused on the movement’s social agenda found their way to that argument.

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David Weigel

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