Social and economic conservatives have worked together under the mantle of the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan made them the core of his 1980 coalition, but the alliance may now be fraying.
Some of the nation’s most prominent social conservatives are sending a message to their economic brethren by dropping out of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in response to the decision to include GOProud, a gay conservative group, as a participating organization.
“The base-line reason is that homosexuality is not a conservative value,” said Bryan Fischer, the American Family Association’s director of issue analysis. “It’s the conservative PAC, not the libertarian PAC.”
Sponsored by the American Conservative Union (ACU), the CPAC gathering traditionally has been a marquee event on the conservative political calendar. This year’s conference is scheduled to run Feb. 10 to 12 in Washington and will feature leading Republican presidential contenders Haley Barbour, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and John Thune.
Two CPAC board members contacted by The Washington Times said they were distressed by the departure of key social conservatives and considered it a high priority to have them participate in the 2012 conference. At the same time, they said, they knew of no plans to downgrade GOProud’s status or otherwise modify the program.
“I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to comment, but I just wish none of this had happened,” said CPAC board member Cleta Mitchell. “I hope we can have a good CPAC this year and resolve this so that we can bring everyone back into the fold next year.”
Other social-issues groups opting to avoid the conference include the Heritage Foundation, the Family Research Council, the Center for Military Readiness, the American Family Association, the American Principles Project, the Liberty Counsel and the National Organization for Marriage.
“Obviously, those are important groups and need to be part of CPAC in the future,” said board member Al Cardenas. “It’s regretful having great groups pull out. We’ve got to make sure we have the right steps in place so we can have everyone there next year.”
Conservative online media mogul Andrew Breitbart is supporting GOProud’s foray into CPAC.
“Oh, by the way. Gonna have a party welcoming Gay conservatives to CPAC. Deal with it,” he said on his Twitter account last week.
Groups such as Citizen Link, the political-action arm of Focus on the Family, plan to attend this year’s CPAC, but say the conference is on a short leash.
“It’s obvious the influence of social conservatives has been missing and there needs to be more of it,” said Tom Minnery, senior vice president of Citizen Link. “If the ACU can’t manage this problem that they’ve brought upon themselves, we’ll have to make another decision.”
The CPAC flap is emblematic of a larger rift between social and economic conservatives over the direction of the Republican Party in the wake of its 2010 electoral success. With many independents swinging Republican in November, the sheer increase in the number of GOP voters means that fissures within the party are bound to be heightened, said Jim Weidman, Heritage Foundation director of editorial services.
“There’s always been these tensions, and it’s true of the left and right,” said Mr. Weidman. “And the bigger the tent, the bigger the tensions. I don’t think it’s new, and I don’t think it’s surprising.”
With the weak economy dominating the political scene, economic conservatism enjoyed the upper hand in the 2010 elections. Economic conservatives point to the rise of the tea party as evidence that the GOP needs to spend more time on reducing the size of government and less time on moral issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
Indiana GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels articulated that position in June when he was quoted as saying that the next president “would have to call a truce on the so-called ‘social issues.’”
What annoys social conservatives and “values voters” is the implication that such a truce would apply only to them, and that fiscal conservatives and tea party activists don’t face similar pressures to compromise.
“When you do that, you’re yielding the field to the forces of homosexual extremism,” said Mr. Fischer. “Because [homosexual groups] aren’t declaring a truce, that’s for sure. Any truce would be a one-sided truce, and that’s a surrender.”
Social conservatives argue that the party can successfully promote both economic- and values-oriented conservatism. They note that while the tea party leadership stresses small government, the overwhelming majority of the tea party rank and file are pro-life and opposed to same-sex marriage.
“We are economic conservatives, and we believe those issues go hand in hand with social issues,” said Penny Nance, president of the Concerned Women for America.
Her organization confirmed last week that it would pull out of CPAC.
The Heritage Foundation will be absent from CPAC for the first time in more than a decade.
“We’ve obviously got a lot of concerns,” said Mr. Weidman. “It’s unclear what direction CPAC is going, what philosophy they’re going to promote. It looks like it’s becoming more of a cacophony, and we want to focus on the three pillars of conservatism: social, economic and national defense.”
Andy Blom, executive director of the American Principles Project, called the move to marginalize values voters self-defeating.
“The rather arrogant treatment of social conservatives by libertarians is troubling,” said Mr. Blom. “Social conservatives are the foot soldiers of the movement. Marriage has never lost an election. Being pro-life does not lose elections. It wins elections. This is not only a serious principle mistake, it’s a serious political mistake.”
Colin Hanna, president of Let Freedom Ring, said the brouhaha could have been avoided by downgrading GOProud from a participating organization, which is essentially a co-sponsor and plays a role in planning the meetings, to a vendor that has no leadership role.
The CPAC board reportedly took two votes on whether GOProud should be included as a participating organization. The first vote reportedly ended in a tie, and the second must have favored GOProud because the group is now listed on the website as a participating organization.
Economic and social conservatives can agree that the timing for such a family feud is unhelpful as the GOP celebrates major gains in Congress and the states after November’s midterm elections.
“This is a time when the conservative movement is on the ascendant in American politics, and I think it’s very unfortunate this kind of internecine war should be breaking out,” said Mr. Hanna. “We would do well to focus on presenting a conservative agenda to the American public.”