The Values Voter Summit going on Friday and Saturday in Washington is part beauty contest for GOP presidential hopefuls, part rally site for traditionally conservative activists and their leaders hoping to tap into "tea party" fervor. It’s also a lightning rod for liberal critics who paint the conservative gathering as anything but representative of the values most Americans hold.
The current political scene is tricky for mainline conservatives, especially those thumping social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. While such issues may be of interest to many tea partyers, they are not at the forefront of tea party activism, which tends to be more libertarian – focused on federal spending, taxation, and the new health-care reform law derisively called “Obamacare.”
Plus, polls show that younger conservatives – whether or not they’re tea party activists – care less about social issues. For example, younger evangelicals are more likely to approve of same-sex marriage or civil unions than are older evangelicals (52 to 34 percent).
But the lead sponsor of the Values Voter Summit is the conservative Family Research Council, so social issues are a prominent focus. Breakout sessions include “The case for Christian activism,” “The falsehood of the inevitability of same-sex marriage,” “Establishing a culture impact team in your church,” and “Why Christians should support Israel.”
Friday speakers emphasized tea party themes in what amounted to a critical blast at the Obama administration and the Democratically controlled Congress.
“This president and his fellow-travelers in Congress implemented the most anti-growth, anti-investment, anti-jobs measures we've seen in our lifetimes,” Mr. Romney told the crowd. “He called it ambitious. It was reckless. He scared employers, so jobs are scarce. The uncertainty and lack of predictability he created has caused businesses to shrink from spending and from hiring. He hasn't helped end the crisis, he made it deeper, longer, and more painful.”
Others sought to draw the connection between economic and social themes.
"People say this is not a year where we ought to be talking about social issues," Mr. Huckabee said. "We need to understand there is a direct correlation between the stability of families and the stability of our economy…. The real reason we have poverty is we have a breakdown of the basic family structure."
High point of the summit is Saturday’s presidential straw poll. On the ballot last year were Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, Mike Pence, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum. Huckabee led the pack with 28 percent of the vote. Romney, Pawlenty, Palin, and Pence each got about 12 percent.
Notable by her absence at the Values Voter Summit this year is Sarah Palin. She’ll be part of the straw poll Saturday, but she had more pressing (presidential?) things going on. She’s the keynote speaker Friday night at the Iowa Republican Party’s “Ronald Reagan Dinner.” Iowa, of course, holds its presidential caucus early in the campaign year.
In particular, PFAW launched a preemptive strike in the form of a letter to seven prominent conservative speakers urging them to “denounce” statements by Bryan Fischer, the American Family Association’s director of issue analysis.
Mr. Fischer, another summit speaker (whose organization is one of the event's sponsors), is known for making controversial – some would say outrageous – statements about gays and Muslims. (He has said Muslims should not be allowed to serve in the US armed forces.)
“By sharing a stage with Fischer, public figures like Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Mike Pence, Bob McDonnell, and Michele Bachmann don’t necessarily endorse Fischer’s shameless anti-Muslim and anti-gay propaganda – but they do acknowledge its credibility,” said PFAW president Michael Keegan in a statement. “Any candidate thinking seriously of running for president in 2012 should think twice about standing alongside [Fischer].”