Tea Party Movement Rift: Leaders Debate Whether To Push Social Issues Along With Fiscal Ones (VIDEO)
UPDATE: In an afternoon session, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum also stressed that social issues need to be pushed along with economic ones. WATCH:
Tea Parties and condemnation of excessive government spending were front and center at the 2010 Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. on Friday, with the audience excited on the heels of Christine O'Donnell's win in Delaware's GOP Senate primary. But what was different from many other Tea Party gatherings was the infusion of religious "values" rhetoric and the belief that in order to succeed, the movement must aggressively embrace and push for social issues, in addition to the fiscal ones that attract the most attention.
One of the morning's most popular speakers was Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who has been heralded as a "kingmaker" in the media for the success of several of his candidates -- including O'Donnell, Rand Paul in Kentucky, and Sharron Angle in Nevada -- in trouncing the Republican establishment-backed picks.
"We've seen the power shift from Washington out to the people," DeMint said to audible "amens." "It's supposed to be a government of and for and by the people. It's happening now, and it's got a lot of people in Washington scared. It's changing things. Thanks to you."
DeMint then devoted the rest of his speech to refuting the idea that the conservative movement should focus on fiscal issues rather than social ones. "I hear regularly as I travel around this country, someone will tell me, 'I'm a fiscal conservative conservative, but not a social conservative.' I want to straighten him a little bit this morning, because the fact is, you cannot be a real fiscal conservative if you do not understand the value of a culture that's based on values," he said to loud applause.
To make his case, he said that without strong Judeo-Christian values, the American public becomes dependent on the government. "When you have a big government, you're going to have a little God," said DeMint. "You're going to have fewer values and morals, and you're going to have a culture that has to be controlled by the government. But when you have a big God, you're going to have a responsible and capable people with character to control themselves and lead their own lives. And you can't have a little God that promotes freedom and allows people to keep more of their own money, and a government that's not bankrupt. A government that's not bankrupt. We're talking about fiscal issues."
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) started off with a joke that established her Tea Party bonafides, saying she prefers Tea Parties to the Washington, D.C. "wine and cheese" parties. She then, however, launched into a discussion not of fiscal issues, but of the right to life, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence (which she put up on the large screen in the ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel). Responding to the wave of Tea Party victories, Bachmann echoed DeMint and said, "People are reclaiming their inalienable rights as given to them by the almighty God. ... Thou shalt not covet what does not belong to us. It isn't our values, our shared timeless values, that have changed, is it? It's our leaders that have changed."
Even Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who is known more for being a budget hawk than a social warrior, refuted the notion by some Republicans who want to put aside social issues for now. "We must recognize that our present crisis is not merely economic and political, but moral," he said, adding, "A political party that would govern this great nation must be able to handle more than one issue a time. We must focus on our fiscal crisis, and support our troops. We must work to create jobs, and protect human life and defend traditional marriage."
The rhetoric by these conservative leaders at the Values Voter Summit is a marked contrast to the message that many of their allies -- including Tea Partiers -- have been trying to get out. To be sure, social issues have always been on display at Tea Parties. There are not only signs about being taxed enough already, but ones about undocumented immigration, President Obama's citizenship and the right to life. Additionally, many of the Tea Parties' favorite candidates are making waves more for their positions on abortion or even masturbation than their views on economic policies. The discussion over these issues and how much to embrace them, however, seems to be increasingly coming to the front of the discussion and has the potential to cause a schism in the movement.
FreedomWorks Chairman Dick Armey recently told reporters that the movement was not placing a priority on social issues. CEO Matt Kibbe said that the movement has a "diversity of opinion" on these policies and was therefore focusing on "what we all agree on" -- reducing the size and scope of government. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), who is also considered a 2010 presidential contender, called for a temporary "truce on the so-called social issues" in order to unite around fiscal ones.
"We should be creating the biggest tent possible around the economic conservative issue," Ryan Hecker, the organizer behind the Tea Party's Contract From America manifesto, told The New York Times. "I think social issues may matter to particular individuals, but at the end of the day, the movement should be agnostic about it. This is a movement that rose largely because of the Republican Party failing to deliver on being representative of the economic conservative ideology. To include social issues would be beside the point."
This debate played out on National Public Radio on Sept. 16. Toby Marie Walker of the Waco Tea Party said that her group and many of the national Tea Party organizations make an attempt to stay away from social issues. "[R]ight now, the Tea Party is about the economy," she said. "And while the social issues on a personal level are important to a lot of our members, we stay away from those issues because they're so divisive. We believe that those are other groups and we applaud them, and when people ask about pro-life issues, we send them over to Pro-Life Waco or some of the other groups." Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association countered that the movement will start losing members if it doesn't address social issues, such as the "homosexual agenda." "And that's why I think the Tea Party movement is no longer... going to be able to claim the mantle of the founding fathers unless they affirm that morality and religion are indispensible supports of political prosperity," he predicted.
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