Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom forum features a kinder, gentler Republican message

June 27, 2014

 New Jersey Governor Chris Christie walks out to shakes hands with Ralph Reed after he spoke at the second day of the 5th annual Faith & Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" Policy Conference in Washington

The great American composer and critic Virgil Thomson used to say that when he went to a concert, he didn’t listen to music. He listened for music.

That was a good way to approach the latest convention of Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition in Washington, D.C. There was music in the air, especially for those who still hope there is some common ground in our deeply divided republic, but you had to listen hard.

“Every day of this presidency has been an impeachable offense,” said Monica Crowley of Fox News. “This is the deliberate takedown of America.”

Michelle Bachmann said that President Barack Obama’s most lasting legacy would be “the establishment of lawlessness in the United States of America,” at which point a man in a Revolutionary War uniform and tricorn hat waved a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag and shouted “Right!”

Through all the racket, though, came the quieter but distinct voices of serious people with serious ideas. This was surprising, not only because political discourse in the United States has grown so rancid but also because — as Thomson’s approach to music criticism suggests — everything good comes as something of a surprise.

Before an audience that could be counted on to cheer every reference to government dysfunction and overreach — and at a time when elections sometimes seem reducible to an argument about whether or not Washington is a positive evil — it was surprising just to hear leaders of Republican conservatism concede that government might be good for something.

Supporters of U.S. Senator Thad Cochran embrace after run-off victory in Jackson, MississippiAnd some of them went a lot further than that.

Utah Senator Mike Lee, who in 2010 defeated three-term GOP incumbent Bob Bennett in one of the Tea Party’s first big upsets, talked not about reducing the cost of government so much as moving the budget to states and local communities, to get government closer to the problems that need solutions. “The primary goal should always be to build a functioning government that works for all Americans,” he said, “especially for the poor and the middle class.”

Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum castigated fellow Republicans for “not connecting with the people who are hurting in this country….[I]f you listen to the message that we’ve been delivering, it’s all about the business owners, all about the corporations, all about Wall Street.”

Rand Paul, too, broke Ronald Reagan’s hallowed Eleventh Commandment and talked openly about the flaws of fellow Republicans — specifically, those who confuse the search for peace with weakness and those who exempt themselves from laws they pass and vote for bills they haven’t read. He called for term limits, described his political enemies as “bipartisan” and, unlike some at the conference who linked freedom exclusively to Christianity, cited the founding fathers’ call for civic virtue rather than adherence to any single creed.

Almost every speaker offered full-throated support for the pro-life position on abortion, but notable Republican pro-choice figures — Condoleezza Rice, Olympia Snowe, Tom Ridge, Colin Powell — were proudly invoked as an example of the party’s commitment to inclusion.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, in his first appearance before the Faith and Freedom Coalition, talked about a “culture of life” that looks beyond the unborn child. “When we say we’re pro-life, we need to be pro-life for the entire life. We need to stand up for the hurt and the wounded. We need to be there for even for those who stumble and fall, to lift them up….To me that’s the true meaning of being pro-life.”

Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, devoted virtually his entire speech to poverty in America, to the obligation to fight for “those who need it most. The rich will be fine, because they always are. But the poor need you. That’s why we’re here — because they’re being left behind. Some will say, ‘Yes, but they voted for the other guys.’ Who cares! Patriots fight for everybody, no matter how they vote….”

“I know you’re ready to fight for the free-enterprise agenda, for American greatness,” he said, “but that’s not the question. The question is whether you have enough love written on your heart to fight for everybody. Everybody. No exceptions.”

It is easy to be cynical about what politicians say, especially in an election year. But Brooks came with the poll numbers.

“Sixteen percent of Americans say that the Republican Party is compassionate,” he said. “Sixteen percent. What was the only piece of data you needed to call the 2012 presidential election? ‘Who cares more about people like you?’ That was all you needed, because it went two to one for Obama….We have to turn that around.”

In a week when black Democrats in Mississippi turned out to help save an old white Republican from a challenger perceived as reactionary and insensitive to their needs, it wasn’t hard to see how that might work.

The theme of the Faith and Freedom conference was “The Road to Majority,” meaning a mid-term election this year that would return power to Senate Republicans. But this new drift of GOP rhetoric seems aimed at more than a few Senate seats.


I welcome your comments, reactions, amplifications, relevant links and ideas for future columns. You can reach me at jimgaines.reuters@gmail.com.


PHOTOS: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (L) walks out to shakes hands with Ralph Reed after he spoke at the second day of the 5th annual Faith & Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” Policy Conference in Washington, June 20, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Mississippi State Representative Rita Martinson (L) and Jennifer Hall, supporters of Republican U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, embrace after results were announced that Cochran defeated Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel during a victory celebration in a run-off election in Jackson, Mississippi June 24, 2014. REUTERS/Lee Celano




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