I had the privilege to attend the meeting of evangelicals in Texas this weekend. Due to pressing matters before me Saturday I could not make the Saturday portion, but was there Friday hearing the advocacy for the candidates, the run down, etc. I did not vote.
As with all meetings of Christian conservatives, we all pledge to have an off the record meeting and a handful of the sinners start leaking like sieves. It is aggravating and typically why I never say a word in these meetings.
Since a few have decided to leak so many details from the meeting as background and anonymous sources, I want to clarify a few things from my perspective and I will do it decidedly on the record.
The first thing you need to know is that taking shots at Tony Perkins for his statements this weekend is both ignorant and wrong. Tony was selected to speak for the group as a whole and he has done a tremendous job reflecting the views of the consensus whether they are his or not. He didn't really volunteer as much as he was chosen (I cannot have been the only Presbyterian there) and he has done his job ably.
The second thing you should note is that I personally view the state of the Christian conservative movement poorly. It is such an honor and privilege to be in the same room with James Dobson. Truth be told, I've been in the room with him several times and have yet to work up the courage to meet a man who has meant so much to my wife and me. Hopefully I'll work up the courage one of these days.
But Dobson and the other men and women in the room exemplify my problem with the state of the Christian conservative movement — it is getting really old and I do not yet see authentic, strong voices rising up to succeed these pioneers. I take it as a good sign that these men picked Tony Perkins as their spokesman. In the generation that bridges the gap, Perkins is one of the few honest brokers and genuinely authentic good guys in the evangelical community and conservative movement as a whole.
A great deal of the passionate, younger voices of the Christian conservative movement are focused on Christ and not politics. While that's a far better position to focus on, I fear the Christian conservative movement is going to be handed down to a few good young men and women surrounded by others with less sincere intentions — people who advocate people and positions in furtherance of things other than Christ's Kingdom. The up and comers will have to rely on men like Tony Perkins to avoid irrelevance and charlatans both.
The third thing you should know about this weekend is just how well the Gingrich and Santorum camps handled themselves and how poorly the Perry and Romney camps handled themselves. I won't even get into the advocacy on behalf of Ron Paul, which didn't go well.
There was a decidedly sympathetic view toward Rick Santorum going into the meeting. He has been one of the leading advocates for socially conservative views. They like him on that. I was, frankly, stunned that even when some of the people chosen to speak objectively about the field pointed out that this will be an election about economics, the crowd really was focused on social concerns.
I won't go into quotes from the men who advocated for the various candidates. Even on the record here, I want to respect the organizers' wishes more than others have on background, but both Santorum's advocate and Gingrich's advocate (each candidate had someone to speak for them) did those men a great service. The Santorum pitch was largely focused on what he had done for the movement, including for the babies. The Gingrich pitch really reflected what Jonah Golberg wrote recently in his column about Newt. If you think the end of the world is nigh, you want the Churchill, not the technocrat.
Rick Perry had a lot of supporters in the crowd, but too few who thought he could win and many who want him to get out and endorse Gingrich or possibly Santorum before South Carolina votes. His advocate, a friend, was not as well prepared as the others, but many in the crowd did speak up for him.
The Romney advocacy did more harm than good and I think the biggest story to come out of this event has to be both the hostility between evangelicals and Team Romney and the absolute endorsement for "Not Romney."
If you are reading this from the media, I think the story you should tell is that Mitt Romney will probably become the nominee of the Republican Party with even less good feelings between evangelicals and him than John McCain had.
The problem for Team Romney is that the distrust of Romney is overwhelmingly about his record and shiftiness, but the Romney campaign fundamentally believes it is about his religion. When Team Romney concluded the pitch (read from an iPad seemingly without a passionate delivery) with an admonishment to not be an anti-Mormon bigot, it was game over. Several of the attendees felt like the Romney campaign was almost implying that they'd win without evangelicals and would expect everyone to line up when it was over even without Romney reaching out.
Note to Team Romney: when you are in a room full of Christian leaders like those who were in that room and who have all long been attacked by the left as bigots, it is unwise — no, it is damn foolish — to accuse them of being anti-Mormon bigots, something too many Romney supporters have descended to as the only possible explanation for daring to not get on board with Romney.
It's interesting that the outreach concerns are so universal. Inside the conservative blogosphere, among social conservatives, and among specifically the evangelical community there is a great deal of concern that, unlike John McCain, once the Romney camp has it in the bag they'll go off to woo independents and leave smoldering or un-repaired bridges back to the base.
As to the vote itself, there was a consensus, but not as strong as the reported vote would have you believe. According to several I talked to who were still there for the vote, it was divided with many thinking Gingrich is the only one who can win and many not sure they want to hitch a wagon to the Gingrich train. On this, there is no difference inside and outside the evangelical community.
What gets me is that given Rick Santorum's polling in South Carolina, his funding and campaign apparatus, the admonition from one influential person that Santorum doesn't have the campaign to run for President, etc. separate reports suggest a number of people present decided to vote for Santorum not to beat Romney, but to be Romney's running mate — something that most likely will not happen.
At this point, a vote for Santorum really does help Mitt Romney, but few are willing to acknowledge that. When given the chance to beat Romney, I was kind of shocked by the people who were already reconciled to his win, though that was not the majority view. Most want to fight till the end, fight to the convention, broker a convention, or do anything else to stop Romney. But by voting for Santorum, the group largely undercut more serious efforts waged by Gingrich to stop Romney and, even more troubling if Romney is the nominee and loses, potentially sets up a claim by Rick Santorum, a man who will have been out of office a decade by then, to be the 2016 front runner.
In a year when we could possibly see Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Rick Scott, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and others, the evangelical movement might have just sown the first seeds of division for 2016 — seeds that, like in 2008 and 2012, prevented evangelicals from getting one of their own the nomination.
That brings up a problem with the evangelical movement within the political sphere — it is often poorly advised on strategy and cuts short term deals that undermine long term goals. But that's a topic for another day.