Parley Exposing Rift Among Types Of Conservatives

By E.J. Kessler

Published March 04, 2005, issue of March 04, 2005.
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The fallout from a rowdy conservative conference last month is exposing the fault lines in the Republican Party between Christian conservatives and small-government libertarians — including many Jewish activists.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference, held February 17-19 in Washington, attendees loudly booed a speaker who spoke in defense of President Bush’s proposed immigration reforms. Hostile comments also were lobbed at a representative of the gay GOP group the Log Cabin Republicans.

The conference’s truculent atmosphere upset some libertarian conservatives, including New York Post columnist Ryan Sager.

“Needless to say, triumphalism permeated the proceedings,” Sager wrote in a column on the Web site Tech Central Station. “The Republicans, having just held the presidency and consolidated power in Congress, are perhaps entitled to some gloating. But out-and-out arrogance was the order of the conference, as well, and that is what threatens to undo Republican gains in the long term.”

“Arrogance toward Democrats isn’t the problem — though that was everywhere,” Sager wrote, adding: “No, the arrogance that will prove problematic, ultimately, was that directed at the libertarian-leaning conservatives by the social conservatives. The message in that regard was clear: We Christians can do this alone; y’all who ain’t down with J.C. best be running along.”

The flap over the recent conference comes just weeks after religious conservatives sent President Bush a letter warning that they would not endorse his Social Security reforms unless the White House pressed for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. “If Republicans do what they’ve done in the past, which is say, ‘Thanks so much for putting us in power: Now we don’t want to talk to you anymore,’ they will pay a serious price,” James Dobson, one of the evangelical leaders who signed the letter, told London’s Daily Telegraph.

In addition to threatening the administration’s legislative agenda, the clashes between economic and social conservatives could upend Bush’s blueprint for expanding the base of the Republican Party. The president has sought to secure the support of both camps with a mix of hawkish foreign-policy positions, pro-business measures and domestic initiatives backed by the religious right.

Some moderate Republicans close to Bush argue that stressing economic and national security positions — not social issues — is the key to increasing Republican support among Hispanics, African-Americans and Jews. That approach is being furthered by the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, Kenneth Mehlman, a Jewish conservative who frequently cites President Reagan as his inspiration.

Religious conservatives — including, evidently, most of the 4,500 people who attended the recent parley — counter that, to the contrary, the party’s social conservatism brings in the most voters, notwithstanding those it might alienate.

The debate was quickly joined by other conservatives. Weighing in on Sager’s side was blogger and New Republic Senior Editor Andrew Sullivan, a proponent of gay marriage, while National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponuru argued the socially conservative side on the paleo-conservative magazine’s online site.

“Do social issues hurt the Republican Party? No,” Ponuru told the Forward in a telephone interview. “The free market and limited government have long been the Achilles heel of the Republican Party.”

Such social-conservative causes as banning “partial-birth” abortion have gained the support of two-thirds of Congress; opposition to abortion and gay marriage “bring in more Republicans than they lose,” Ponuru said. In contrast, he added, the conservative economic positions on limiting the minimum wage, reducing Medicare and outsourcing “are not winning issues.” That’s because “a mixture of social liberalism and economic conservatism,” while “overrepresented in American elites,” is not found among “socially conservative union members.”

“A sound political strategy for any party has to take account of” working-class cultural conservatives, Ponuru said.

Sager feels that the GOP’s future expansion lies in the so-called economic freedom agenda: tax cuts, business deregulation, private Social Security accounts, etc.

“In the long run I don’t think the Republican Party can have a future catering to Christian conservatives,” Sager told the Forward in a telephone interview.

When Bush “played the gay marriage issue” during the recent campaign, Sager said, “it was just rhetoric.”

“If Christian Conservatives are serious about this issue, they should be outraged at this president,” Sager said. “They were had.”

“Bush knows it’s not constructive,” Sager argued. “He’s about expanding the base with Hispanics and blacks.”

Sager said there was not much representation of a “Jewish or neoconservative element” at the recent conference. “This isn’t a New York conservative crowd,” he said.

Sager was quite offended by the Christian talk at the conference.

“I couldn’t count on all my fingers and all my toes how many times speakers said either directly or indirectly that God had chosen George W. Bush as president,” he wrote on his blog. “The prayer one night at dinner was particularly partisan. Now I’m not a person of faith, but I can’t imagine how any person of faith wouldn’t be offended by the idea that God is somehow on the Republicans’ side against the Democrats.”

Tamar Jacoby, the Manhattan Institute scholar who was booed at the conference when she spoke in defense of Bush’s proposed immigration reforms, “came away more encouraged” than Sager.

“Even though it was loud and impolite, I don’t think the opposition was unanimous,” she said of those opposing Bush’s push for a guest-worker program. “There’s going to be a battle on the right, but I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion we’re going to lose.”

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