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Archive for June, 2011

I just watched Jon Stewart’s contentious (to say the least) interview with Chris Wallace on Fox from earlier today, and had to revisit comments from my interview several weeks ago with my friend Scot Faulkner — a lifelong conservative activist who now is head of the Dreyfus Initiative, a nonpartisan, non-profit organization looking to promote civics education (public, parochial, and home schooling) that furthers civil discourse about our country’s history and future.

There is not some daylight, but not much, between what Scot told me and how Stewart skewered Wallace. Fox has become an echo chamber, a quasi-propagandistic island where there is little to no serious debate or exchange of different viewpoints. “Fox is bad for conservatism,” Faulkner told me. “We need to engage the other side, we need to engage the voters…Fox on the right, MSNBC on the left — you have people who are so bitter to each other…so polarizing and vicious, to the point of crafting parallel realities.”

Those parallel realities stand in the way of political progress, which depends on discourse. As I have written repeatedly, the conservative movement and its media voices have devolved from the model favored by its modern godfather William F. Buckley Jr. and his Firing Line to CNN’s Crossfire (also lambasted by Stewart) and now the Fox echo chamber. One of the last bastions of serious, conservative intellectual exchange is not much noticed in the media — and often improperly portrayed as part of the right wing conspiracy: The Federalist Society. In what I’ve written on the Federalists when researching my Ph.D., I had the chance to ask then-Senator Hillary Clinton, who coined that conspiracy phrase, about the Federalist Society. In hindsight she took a different view, complementing the Federalists for their intellectual dedication and organizational commitment.

I cannot say, nor do I suspect Sec. Clinton would say, similar things about the crowd on Fox. As Faulkner pointed out in my extended interview with him on POLITICO, the Fox effect has recently given us such political sad stories as Newt Gingrich, who was resurrected by Sean Hannity in the farthest thing from a process of serious political engagement;  on Fox, Hannity was Gingrich’s “golden retriever.”

And when Gingrich goes on Meet the Press, he encounters someone who wasn’t a golden retriever.

Fox is bad for conservatism. Just as other networks, like MSNBC with its own crop of over-the-top programming, is bad for progressivism. Both are bad for the broader political discourse. I’m happy to have Jon Stewart out there making the case; I’d like to also see more principled conservatives like Scot Faulkner making the case.

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The Twitterverse and Beltway chatterers have been going nonstop on Bachmann since the GOP debate on CNN, in which she “emerged” (the most commonly employed word) and set herself apart from the dull front runners and fringe types on the other end. Who knew that this woman, who was thrust onto the national scene after an unfortunate Joe McCarthy-like interview with Chris Matthews, would be “emerging” and seen as the potential change agent for a catalyst for tea party and evangelical enthusiasm on the right?

One person who I must assume knew was Ed Rollins. A Reagan guy, with close to universally respected judgment. As I wrote in POLITICO today, what Bachmann is showing is not just that she can “emerge” from a dull field of candidates, but that she can improve both as a substantive policy advocate and as a messenger for her side’s causes. Her speeches are getting better; her performance at Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition last week brought the house down. And the CNN debate. Some of us who have been watching her, and who study conservatism, are in fact not very surprised at her rise. See this insightful column by political scientist Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto from February of this year.

With men of all political stripes and nationalities behaving very badly of late, it is not entirely surprising that dynamic women like Bachmann are capturing the limelight. Look out for another highly effective communicator on the conservative side, Scott Walker’s Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch. Her speech at the Ralph Reed sponsored event was a more successful description of the union crisis in her home state than most of what we’ve heard from her boss.

Like other trailblazers on both the left and right — from Phyllis Schlafly to Hillary Clinton — these current GOP spokeswomen and candidates are proving more effective at energizing their base and generating serious political movement.

Look out, boys.

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The whole Newt Gingrich implosion, manifested today by the mass-resignation of his staff, came of no surprise to me following an interview I conducted last week with Scot Faulkner. Scot was Newt’s Chief Administrative Office of the House, a post Gingrich created for him as part of the effort to reform Congress after the “revolution” of 1994. Faulkner has written extensively about the  process, and how Gingrich failed to realize the goals of the conservative movement. “It’s a sad story,” Faulkner told me. “He had promise.”

Faulkner predicted the Gingrich implosion for reasons that, as he sees it, paralleled the failures of the ’94 revolution. His critique is pointed and revealing. And, in a way, sad.

Interestingly, Faulkner also points a damning finger at Fox News, which he says is “bad for conservatism.” It’s refreshing to hear this kind of honest critique from someone with sterling conservative bona fides, having served under Reagan and, in a reference only those in the know will catch, as a top staffer to Ohio Congressman John Ashbrook during the 1970s. Ashbrook was one of the handfull of conservative leaders who convinced Barry Goldwater to run in 1964, co-founded the American Conservative Union, and paved the way for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory.

Read my full article, published in POLITICO on June 9, 2011.

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If the Ralph Reed-inspired Faith and Freedom Coalition event this past weekend taught me anything, it was that there is a discrete formula being used by speechwriters to address the emerging “teavangelical” social conservative base, being orchestrated by Reed. The self-conscious effort to meld the tea partiers to the evangelical base was on explicit display at the conference, and Reed made clear he sees this highly motivated minority as a game changer in 2012 turnout. I don’t think he’s wrong. If the libertarian tea partiers can be melded to the Christian evangelical cohort, Reed would have achieved something along the lines of the fusionism of earlier conservative leaders who brought together anti-communist crusaders and more subdued Wall Street Republicans.

Another thing is clear: The messaging people behind all of the major GOP candidates who are wooing this critical base are all reading off the same script. Bachmann, Hunsman, Pawlenti, Romney, Santorum, Cain, Palin — those who appeared at the event, and those who didn’t — all give the same speech, with the only notable differences being in style and delivery. Here is the not-so-secret talking points memo.

1) Best to open by framing the national debt and deficit as moral issues. Not just economic issues, but moral ones. Decry the debt. Curse the spenders. Bedevil the big government spending and socialistic bailouts. Fear America’s transformation into a cradle to grave European welfare state. Talk about taxes as a form of theft: Give us our money back! The government steals from us and then spends even more, which it does not have.

2) Move on to abortion and gay marriage. For all of the crises facing our nation (rhetorical pivot from moral crisis of debt, etc.) nothing is more important (say it twice: nothing!) than defending the rights of unborn fetuses and the “institution” of heterosexual marriage. The secular progressives, led by Barack Obama, are bent on destroying the fundamental cornerstones of our Judeo-Christian society, undermining the founding fathers’ vision of a society that protects life (and liberty, pursuit of happiness, etc.).

3) We are waging a battle for life and liberty every bit as important as what happened in 1776. (Pivot from citing the Declaration of Independence on the right to life, liberty, etc. etc.) Cite founding fathers as much as possible, ideally in parallel with quotations from Ronald Reagan. Best to cite Reagan quoting founding fathers. There is a good reference to RR quoting Sam Adams, already in use by several GOP contenders.

4) Stand with Israel. The connection between evangelicals and the Jewish state may or may not be rooted in revelations about the End Times, or in a desire to emulate an explicitly religious state, but whatever the justification — Israel must be seen as America’s greatest, strongest, most reliable ally in the entire world. They can, literally, do no wrong, and the Obama administration is the most anti-Israel president in history. There can be no negotiation with terrorists (from which Israel and America both face existential threats) and no negotiation over borders which were determined as a result of hostile invasion by Arab enemies decades ago.

5) Close with scriptural citation, or Ronald Reagan quotation, or both.

This is not a tongue-in-cheek offering; every one of the candidates at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference followed this formulation, and you are sure to hear it from the others going forward.

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First day of Twitter complete, and for those of you not yet online with me there, here are the highlights of today’s events at Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition event. Although billed as a workshop of sorts, it was more of a traditional conference, with a stellar GOP speaker list and breakout panel sessions. Tea Party presence was high, and indeed this is the evangelical Christian base that Reed knows so well. He’s back, and the turnout today shows it. Most major GOP candidates and would-be’s were here to recite the social conservative/tea party mantra: Cut spending, stop abortion, stop gay marriage, support Israel without reservation. Pulsing through it all was an idealized worship of the founding period, Ronald Reagan, and the need to “take our country back.”

The full event is available on C-SPAN streaming.

Beyond that formula, employed by virtually every participant, these items:

-Michelle Bachman brought the house down. Pawlenty, Huntsman, and Romney paled by comparison. Her speech was effective, energetic, and improved from past performances. She’s for real, and she’s getting much better at this. These are her people, the base. She’s running. As Jon Stewart would say, she could win the Republic of Base-istan.

-The Donald. Still a player, and still the (would be) candidate with cojones. Did not mention 3rd party run tonight, but still…why was he here? The speech was funny and interesting. The only participant I heard today to go off script; he pivoted from applause lines about the deficit and spending on Iraq to Eric Cantor’s statements about not paying for Tornado relief without budget offsets. Trump finds this unconscionable. Cantor can do no evil with this crowd. Trump does not care. When the pins started to drop he pivoted to stand-with-Israel. All good. Suggests forged birth certificate and uses first reference to “Barack Hussein Obama” I’ve heard in a while.

-Best Reagan reference. HuffPo and I were both keeping Reagan tallies. Results differ as it got hard to keep track. But as to the best invocation, Huntsman scores for odd, Pawlenty for vivid. Huntsman quoted Reagan (from the new book The Notes) who quoted Sam Adams who in turn was quoting an unnamed French philosopher, probably Montesquieu. You follow? Pawlenty, alternatively, paints the picture of the 1981 inauguration. Cloudy skies. Reagan places hand on mother’s Bible. Clouds part. Ray of sunlight on Reagan’s shoulders. T-Paw begins reciting the scriptural passage on the opened page. The audience begins reciting along with him. Am I at church? (Also this crossed my mind when Clarence Thomas’ wife Ginni, who was announcing the end of the nation as we know it in a panel on the tea party, asked all present to turn to someone beside them and thank them for saving our country. This was the Catholic version, of course. Awkward.)

-Scheduling fail of the day: Mitt Romney introduced by his wife following a bravado barnstormer by right wing legal crusader Jay Sekulow. Sekulow, who is in front of the Supreme Court all the time on behalf of his side’s causes, knows how to rouse and audience. It was all Israel and abortion all the time, and he was in full voice, raising a rallying cry over repeated standing ovations and cheers. Enter Ann Romney. Poor Ann Romney. Who declared, politely, that Barack Obama had better watch out because “we are going to get him.” Her final line, introducing hubby: “It’s up to you, sweetie!” Why, why did they do this to her? Mitt was Mitt, soldiering through gladly but like Huntsman and Pawlenty seeming more as though he was there to recite the rite than to connect. I told Sekulow later that there were probably a lot of people in that room who wish he was running.

-Mitt, Mitt, Mitt. Attempts to reinvent self also failing. To connect with the social conservative base, rhetorical solution is clear: Add adjective “moral” to issues. Moral deficit crisis. Moral jobs crisis. And in the speechwriting fail of the night, the oddest folksy-family tale I’ve ever heard. Talking about his dad, another repeated GOP presidential contender, he described George Romney’s carpenter skills, specifically the ability to stuff his mouth full of nails and spit them out one at a time, point first, into lathe boards, and then hammer them in. People in the crowd were looking at each other confused. Mitt, we know you’re trying. But spitting nails? I saw this is a bad horror movie recently. Who on earth is writing this man’s speeches?

-Frank Luntz was a no show. I was gravely disappointed at missing the chance to hear the old boss advise these good folks. I informed several members of the press and crowd around me that they should not be surprised at a Luntz late appearance, or non-appearance. “What was it like working for him?” “Often like this.” Grover Norquist reported no knowledge of his pal’s whereabouts. Grover Norquist not seen smiling all day. Grover Norquist refers to Republicans who vote for tax increases as rat heads floating in Coke bottles. Soldier on, Brother Grover. Perhaps though you are not the smiling optimistic messenger Ralph Reed kept telling the audience the conservative movement needs.

-George Allen says he’s sorry for Macaca. First time. “And during my last campaign, I never should have singled out that young man working for my opponent, calling him a name. He was just doing his job. I was wrong to do that to him.” He went on further. I was genuinely struck; I’ve heard plenty of phony apologies from pols and this was not one of them. He said he’s had five years to reflect. He’s right. His demeanor seemed more seasoned overall. I was far more impressed by this George Allen (and not just because of the apology) than the Allen I cheered Jim Webb on against.

-John Boehner gets tearyeyed, again. Right on cue. Talking about his high school football coach and the greatness of America. Really? Really??? Yup, really.

Signing off, with sore hands from all this Twittering.

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RiehlPolitics will be debuting on Twitter with coverage of the Ralph Reed-led conservative revival festival starting tomorrow. There will be plenty to Tweet about, with the speakers including a hugely impressive roster of conservative leaders including most of the leaders of the traditional grassroots movement, House Republican leadership, and the GOP presidential field. And Donald Trump.

And this just in: Glenn Beck.

Follow me at Twitter@RiehlPolitics

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Anthony Wiener is in trouble. If you’ve been off the political grid over the last few days, catch up on Twittergate here.

Watching his incredibly uncomfortable interview with Wolf Blitzer last night I was immediately reminded of one of my favorite political films, The Contender. Which, if you haven’t seen it — go see it.

My thoughts on the parallels with Wiener’s real-life drama are over at POLITICO.

Read my full article, published at POLITICO on June 2, 2011.

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