I went to a writing workshop last week by Fred Barbash, my former professor and now colleague. Fred is the editor of CQ Weekly, and he held a lunchtime session on framing magazine stories. He really emphasized the importance of making an argument and using that to structure your piece, a technique I applied the next day in a piece I wrote about the conservative movement.
It’s about a rift between conservative groups about whether to focus on fiscal issues (a la tea party) or social ones such as abortion and gay marriage. There’s a big conservative conference in Washington this week, and some groups are boycotting it because a gay group was invited. That had led to a lot of pieces being written about the right’s focus on fiscal issues, so I wrote one arguing that, in fact, the conservative base is still motivated by social issues:
Washington insiders may believe conservatives have set social issues aside for fiscal ones, but concerns about abortion and gay marriage still drive the conservative base.
Just months after small-government activists helped Republicans win the House, tea-party darling Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has backed an anti-abortion bill and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is boycotting a key conservative conference over the inclusion of a gay group.
Newly selected Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has also made a point of stating his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
“Social issues win at the ballot box,” said Francis Cannon, who as president of the American Principles Project is leading the boycott of the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference.
The tea parties have argued otherwise, saying social debates will divide conservatives at a time when they should focus on getting Democrats out of office and making budget cuts to reduce the deficit.
But the question remains whether conservative voters are willing to set aside a candidate’s views on abortion and gay marriage.
“When it comes to election time, there’s no question that social issues just do very well among conservative candidates,” said Chuck Donovan, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, which has joined the CPAC boycott.
Donovan said polls consistently show conservatives vote based on family values, even when some major tea-party leaders and conservatives called for a truce on such issues in the last election.
The view from the grassroots is also quite different than tea-party leaders let on, a fact leading tea-party candidates in the last election seemed to get. Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, and Sens. Paul, Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) all vocally touted their social conservatism on the campaign trail.
Delaware tea-party leader Kevin Street backed O’Donnell in the midterms, and he said her anti-abortion stance factored into his decision.
“I don’t know if I could vote for somebody who was pro-choice,” Street said, adding that his fellow tea partyers seem to share his views. “This is a very, very, very deep subject for most people.”
Fellow Delaware conservative Jon Sherman said he avoids the tea-party label because of its narrow focus on fiscal issues. He is a member of Founders Values, which is part of Glenn Beck’s 9/12 movement.
“Purely focusing on the fiscal conservative aspect isn’t going to get support from within the movement,” Sherman said.
CPAC participant FreedomWorks—a libertarian group that worked closely with Tea Party Patriots early on and steered them away from social issues—acknowledged the power of the social movement.
“Certainly it’s important that [candidates] shore up your social conservative base and your fiscal conservative base,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a campaign director for the group. “You have to be able to speak to the grassroots and the establishment on all these things.”
But Steinhauser added that fiscal concerns help unite the movement and bring in moderates and swing voters.
The group at the center of the CPAC controversy, GOProud, agrees.
While “social conservatives are an important part of the conservative movement,” Executive Director Jimmy LaSalvia said the rise of the tea parties has challenged the position of social-issue groups such as Concerned Women for America and Family Research Council.
“Old Washington establishment groups are not sure how to operate in this environment,” he said. “The truth is the conservative movement is very united right now. The anti-gay groups have chosen to marginalize themselves by not being in CPAC.”
With prominent Republican leaders such as Sarah Palin and DeMint choosing not to attend, it’s unclear how marginalized those not attending will be.
“The size of the social movement is at least half of the Republican base. It’s more significant than the libertarian base,” Heritage Foundation’s Donovan argued. “What the conservative movement is wrestling with is a new politics of self identification.”
CPAC could help answer that question when it kicks off Feb. 10. Even the boycott participants agree the conference provides an important platform for presidential hopefuls to make their case to the grassroots.
As they do, Cannon said he and his fellow boycotters will be listening for a leader.
“Right now the position is open, and we are still auditioning,” he said.