This past weekend the Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference in Washington, DC welcomed many esteemed guests and offered several big name 2016 Presidential hopefuls the opportunity to fire up the socially conservative base. This is one of the first opportunities Republican Presidential hopefuls will have to connect with Evangelical voters, and it’s a chance for them to begin to build their “bona fides” as a candidate. Several major players in the Republican Party made it out to this year’s conference – and one prominent Republican was conspicuously absent.
The good: it was an exciting and “red meat” filled conference. All of the speakers were well received, and each made their connection with the socially conservative crowd. Faith, family and American values were at the forefront of each speaker’s remarks, and immigration was featured heavily throughout the conference. You almost get the sense that Republican lawmakers feel that if they can get the Evangelicals on board with immigration reform, the subject could gain traction on the right. I’m not sure if that’s all it will take, but it is likely the best option for conservative immigration reformers. If Evangelicals can make a connection between immigration reform and social justice, you may see many conservative quickly embrace reform… but it will be difficult for many conservatives to get past that first truth, that illegal immigrants are breaking the law.
The bad: not much bad to unveil from the conference. It featured Republicans on the rise like Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, while it also welcomed back some conservative favorites like Jeb Bush, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann. However, I did find fault with three things. First, how in the world do you invite someone like Donald Trump to give an important speech at conference like this? The man is barely a Republican, very likely not a man of “faith”, and over the course of his life shown a keen distaste for “morality” in general. To have him deliver a keynote speech at this event is at the very least problematic, and at most supremely hypocritical. In the same vein, having Mark Sanford as a guest for this event, having so recently been scandalized was probably not the best idea. Perhaps in a few years when he has worked to rebuild his reputation and can show proof that he is sorry for the way he acted and how he hurt so many people… but this weekend was too soon. Secondly, how is this an event that Chris Christie could afford to miss? I know that the Governor is popular in New Jersey and I know that like Romney and McCain before him, he may not necessarily need the Evangelical base to win the Republican nomination. However, winning over the family values crowd would make nomination easier and winning the election possible. I’m really not sure a Republican candidate can actually win the Presidency without having energized the Evangelical vote. Third, I’m not sure if there was a more cringe worthy moment in the entire weekend than the moment Jeb Bush let loose with “Immigrants are more fertile, and they love families.” D’oh! Immigrants are not more fertile; they are poor, and anyone with a little knowledge of demography knows that poorer communities have more children for a host of reasons, none of which is because they are more fertile. A politician with the breadth of experience that Jeb Bush has should know better.
The takeaway: Marco Rubio is still popular and extremely likable. Other politicians may have tarnished their “brand” by going all-in on a controversial subject like immigration, but Rubio seems untouched. His willingness to be self-deprecating (as shown with the water bottle bit) also makes a good impression. He is not another Barack Obama–Marco Rubio is a man who is okay being imperfect, and he is willing to make fun of himself with friends.
Did Jeb Bush just kill his chances at the Presidency in 2016 with his “immigrants are more fertile” remark? I doubt it, but it could be a bad omen. Donald Trump sure loves Donald Trump. Chris Christie is either very foolish or very smart– we’re still a few years out of the primaries and there is plenty of time to court the conservative Christian vote, but this is not a great start to the political season. Mike Huckabee, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry are all still hanging around… I wonder if any or all of them will be in the mix for the Presidency come 2016. Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan are very popular, and are going to be hard to compete with in the coming years. Conservative’s L-O-V-E Sarah Palin and she may be just the ally the Libertarian wing of the Party needs to succeed. Rand Paul’s speech on the “war on Christianity” was powerful and may have changed some neocon minds on foreign policy issues.
There were a lot of good things happening at the Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference this weekend, and if the energy that was evident there is in any way repeatable in 2014 and 2016, we just may see the Republican Party stage an unlikely political comeback nationally.
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