Religion, the Economy and “Weird and Kinky” Lifestyles at a GOP 2012 Forum in Iowa

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WAUKEE, IOWA–“Are you ready to begin the process of choosing Barack Obama’s successor here in Iowa?”  So asked the longtime Christian conservative activist Ralph Reed on Monday night at the giant Point of Grace evangelical church here a few miles outside of Des Moines, Iowa. Before a crowd of perhaps 1500 charged-up activists, the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition hosted a smattering of the Republicans running or contemplating a run for the White House in 2012.

It was a crowd convinced that something is fundamentally wrong with their country. In the telling of IFFC vice president Gopal Krishna, America is “doing a slow dance with socialism,” “abandoning friends and apologizing to enemies” abroad, and even becoming “a multicultural haven for every weird and kinky lifestyle.” The activists in attendance thrilled to each assertion. But by all appearances they have yet to settle on either a candidate or a message that can reverse this terrible course.

The lineup at tonight’s event seemed substantially less than the best a major political party should have to offer. Not in attendance, for instance, was the presumed front runner, Mitt Romney, or the last winner of the Iowa Republican caucuses, Mike Huckabee, or other substantial maybe-candidates such as Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels. Instead the lineup featured one solid politician almost certain to run but who remains unproven on the national stage (Tim Pawlenty); one political household name whose intentions remain unclear (Newt Gingrich); a former Senator beloved by pro-life activists but with scant mass appeal (Rick Santorum) and two amusing fringe candidates (former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer, long absent from politics, and the little-known Godfather’s pizza founder Herman Cain).

It would be hard to declare any of them a clear winner. All the candidates refrained from taking shots at each other, and all offered variations on the notion that America is a fallen nation in need of rescue. Mostly, the scattershot nature of their speeches suggested a party still casting about for a core message to level against Barack Obama.

Gingrich, for instance, bashed “the secular socialist left” and spoke of the need for renewed belief in “American exceptionalism.” But he offered a grab bag of specific proposals, including abolition of White House policy “czars” and recognition of Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel. Santorum devoted nearly his entire speech to his years spent working to outlaw abortion (and the “special place in heaven” reserved for him for spending long hours on the Senate floor debating California Senator Barbara Boxer), though he digressed to assert that the Obama administration “took the side of the mullahs” during the 2009 popular protests in Tehran.

Not generally known for his religious bona fides, Pawlenty quoted the Bible and heavily emphasized religion—“the Constitution was meant to protect people of faith from government, not protect government from people of faith”—in a speech otherwise devoted largely to his record as governor of Minnesota, with which many Iowans are surely still unfamiliar. It culminated with a shouted vow to “take back this country” and ensure that America’s grandeur “shall not perish from the face of the earth.”

Cain and Roemer, meanwhile, ably fulfilled the roles of extreme long shot candidates, delivering entertaining speeches with nothing-to-lose flourishes. (Cain noted that the Constitution mentions the pursuit of happiness but doesn’t make that a goal of government: “Last I checked I didn’t see anything in there about a Department of Happy in Washington, D.C.,” he said to laughter and applause.) Roemer meanwhile positioned himself as a reformer challenging the institutional corruption of Washington—“a seasoned warrior against the special interest money” who will take no contributions over $100. (His speech peaked with an explanation of his 1991 switch from Democrat to Republican, which quickly drew him two re-election challengers: “Edwin Edwards and David Duke, how would you like to campaign against them?” he asked. “We lost it by a whisker – and they both went to the penitentiary.”)

Complicating matters was the nature of an event held before a crowd of social conservatives at a moment when most Americans are fixated on the economy. In his remarks Ralph Reed repudiated the recent call by Mitch Daniels (whom Reed didn’t actually mention by name) for a “truce” on social issues that would allow the two parties to focus on fixing the economy and the country’s long-term fiscal crisis. “I don’t know about you,” said Reed, “but I’d like to have a leader who can walk and chew gum at the same time.” Reed warned that any such truce would be akin to “unilateral disarmament,” given that Democrats have made no such offer, and said that a GOP which abandons social issues would be relegated to “permanent minority status.” (Much applause here.)

Taking this idea a step further, Rick Santorum implied that the economy less important than social issues. “Everyone wants to talk about the economy,” he said. “But what’s the mission?” (Answer: Protecting the unborn and the sanctity of heterosexual marriage.) Speaking earlier, Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King had put it even more bluntly: “It’s not the economy, it’s our culture. It’s our faith it’s our family it’s our freedom,” he said. “[I]f we get the culture right, the economy will be right eventually.”

That’s a message that may resonate in the Iowa Republican caucuses, which are typically dominated by values votes. It is almost certainly not a formula for winning an electoral majority next November. Perhaps that’s why Gingrich cut against the grain of the evening to argue that “morality applies to economics,” and that “there should be no distinction between economic, national security, and social conservatives.” The Iowa Republican caucuses are scheduled for February 6, 2012. This is an argument conservatives here have eleven months to sort out.

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