'Values voters' in a bind

One of the oldest ploys in politics is hijacking big, universal concepts to carry narrow issue agendas. But as bloggers were quick to note, the Family Research Council's grandly titled Oct. 19-20 political meeting in Washington, the "Values Voter Summit," quickly came down, not to "values" writ large, or even to "Christian values," but to the familiar old hobby horses of social conservativism — abortion and homosexuality — and to the nitty-gritty decision about which of the Republican presidential candidates would walk away with the support of the movement's kingmakers.

With typical economy and trademark venom, Atrios, the enforcer of the liberal netroots, dismisses the whole event as an exercise in hypocrisy: "Call me when 'values voters' stop obsessing about genitals touching each other and the Christian value of torture."

Others paint a more nuanced picture of evangelical politics. At God's Politics, Jim Wallis, a leading evangelical critic of the religious right, argues that there is a "broadened and deepened evangelical agenda," including global warming, poverty, human rights, and social justice. Blogging at Faith in Public Life, Alex Carpenter likewise cites a new CBS News poll showing that white evangelicals, like other voters, see health care and Iraq as the top issues for 2008. "Abortion and gay marriage didn't even crack the top 4 issues," he reports.

That broader agenda wasn't on display in Washington, however. "Just in case there was ANY doubt about how little Christian conservative leaders care about the poor," David Kuo, President Bush's former special assistant in the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, points to the issue straw poll at the FRC summit, which didn't even offer attendees the choice of signaling their interest in issues beyond abortion, gays, prayer, and porn. "NOTHING on poverty? At all???? Nothing?????" Kuo asks disbelievingly at his blog on BeliefNet. "I must end the post now or else I will write things that I will have to repent for."

Even though they no longer reflect the full diversity of evangelical political commitments, the conservative activists in Washington still carry weight in a Republican primary, and bloggers who attended the summit judged the weekend a success for former governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee (a Baptist preacher) of Arkansas.

David Brody, writing at The Brady File, reports that Romney won the summit straw poll on the strength of online voters, but that Huckabee carried the day by a margin of five to one among people who actually heard both candidates in person. "That's called a thumpin' ... It says that you have social conservatives that are ready to embrace him and he's ready to embrace them."

Huckabee's success was bad news for actor Fred Thompson, hoping to claim the Reagan mantle as the conservatives' conservative. "It was debated pretty hotly yesterday, but the consensus has firmed up," David Weigel writes at Reason's Hit & Run blog. "Fred Thompson bombed."

Neither was it a good weekend for Rudy Giuliani, who finished behind Tom Tancredo in the straw poll, with only 6 percent of onsite votes. But the former New York City mayor has all the conservative evangelical support he needs, Marc Ambinder argues at TheAtlantic. "What he needs is for these voters not to body block him; not to launch a movement to stop him; not to distract him and the party during the period between his presumed securing of the nomination and the election."

Will the religious right bolt on Giuliani? At Pro-Life Pulse, Jill Stanek reports on the private meeting of conservative leaders she attended at the end of the FRC event. "Most in the private meeting supported Huckabee. ... For many well thought out and researched reasons, 3rd party chatter was put to rest. I don't think Romney can surmount the Mormon and flip-flop obstacles among pro-life leaders, at least in the primary. Giuliani is still anathema to everyone, despite his attempt to reach out," but Huckabee trails badly in fundraising. "The fact is, s/he who has the most money almost always wins." Even for "values voters," cash in hand is the first commandment.

And what will social conservatives do if the choice ends up as Giuliani versus Hillary Clinton, who is, in Stanek's words, "honestly a pro-life satan"?

"What a conundrum this is ..." agonizes activist Randy Thomas at his blog. "We clearly need direction from the Lord."