L’Shana Tova, Values Voters

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A smaller, more subdued crowd than usual showed up to the first day of the Values Voters Summit here in Washington (maybe the regulars are busy getting ready for Rosh Hashanah services?) And the roster of GOP politicians showing up to court religious conservatives seemed smaller than usual as well. Sarah Palin cancelled, surprising no one. Carrie Prejean–gay marriage opponent, former Miss California, and current Christian Right darling–was the crowd favorite for the morning, delivering her testimony. But I wouldn’t say she “wowed” conservatives. She was just more interesting than interchangeable speakers that preceded her, all of whom seemed to be reading from some conservative Mad Lib rather than delivering individual speeches:“Van Jones _____ ACORN [verb] _____ Czars _____ Sanctity of life [adjective] ______ Hugo Chavez”

There were some distinguishing moments. Mike Pence of Indiana citing a Lincoln quote about how “the negro” and “the white man” were entitled to the same rights, and then declared to cheers and applause: “Our party was founded on equality of opportunity for all Americans, and to that vision we must return.” I’m going to give Pence the benefit of the doubt and assume he was not implying that whites are being denied equality of opportunity under a black president, but I’ll admit the use of that particular reference stumped me.

In 2007, Mike Huckabee was the star of the show, rocking the Values Voters crowd with a powerful sermon and essentially walking away with the straw poll (Mitt Romney technically ended up with more votes, but Huckabee was the clear favorite among those who voted on-site at the gathering). This year, he sounded less like a preacher and more like a politician. Huck also apparently still really hates Romney, going after the former governor’s health care system in Massachusetts and gleefully charging that it has “bankrupted” the state.

The atmosphere of triumphalism that infused the Summit in past years was replaced this year by a sense of isolation and being under siege. Pence spoke of “taking this country back” in 2012, not just the White House. And the breakout sessions for tomorrow are sprinkled with titles like “How Redefining Marriage Threatens Religious Liberty”, “Obamacare: Rationing Your Life Away”, “Countering the Homosexual Agenda in Public Schools”, “Silencing the Christians”, and “Fighting the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy.”

And yet the threat of a Democratic administration isn’t mobilizing religious conservatives the way you might think. This year’s turnout–while a healthy couple of thousand strong–doesn’t hold a candle to 2007, when religious conservatives packed the international ballroom at the Washington Hilton. In the past few months, Family Research Council Action has held two webcasts with key Republican leaders to push back against healthcare reform, which they say attracted 74,000 and “about 100,000” viewers, respectively. Compare that to the more than 300,000 listeners who called into the President’s conference call with religious progressives in August or listened to it online afterward. Earlier this week, the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue even announced that it is “going broke.”

Or it may just be that it’s hard to get large numbers of activists excited about showing up to a political gathering several years out from a presidential election, especially in the middle of a recession.