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Sex, Race and Religion at the Conservative Political Action Conference

by Jo Freeman

Over five thousand people gathered in Washington DC at the beginning of March for the 34th annual Conservative Political Action Conference. A project of the American Conservative Union, this year's conference was underwritten by Human Events, and the Young America's Foundation. Bursting at the seams, it has come a long way since the first meeting of 150 beleaguered conservatives in 1974.  The conference hotel had to convert its underground parking garage to hold all of the exhibit booths.

In between the political gabfest and jostling for supporters by Presidential hopefuls were images and activities which provide some clues to the state of the culture wars.

Hillary was everywhere.  She is the favorite demon of the right wing; mere mention of her name gets their heart pumping and blood flowing. Bill, who used to have this role, was nowhere to be seen. "Big Sister is coming for YOU" declared the sign announcing the webpage. The people behind this webpage claim that they want "to shed light on the REAL Hillary Clinton and the danger she and her ideas pose for America," but they really don't want any Democrat to become President. At CPAC they had a large cut-out of a blond witch-like woman holding a "Hillary Hammer."  On the webpage they have released the fourth episode of "The Hillary Show" (with Howard Dean).

Citizen's United advertised its forthcoming movie which "will expose the truth about her conflicts in the past and her liberal plot for the future." A poster at the United States Justice (sic) Foundation booth proclaimed "FEC fine validates Hillary fraud suit" and implied that she has committed perjury, without explaining about what. American Spectator passed out buttons portraying her as a Hallowe'en witch and Public Advocate passed out a "Hillary Clinton Barf Bag."

Nancy Pelosi was mostly passed over. Apart from being a San Francisco liberal, conservatives haven't quite figured out how to demonize this mother of five and grandmother of six who is second in line to be President.  The only group who tried was Concerned Women for America which put a rather unflattering photo of her on the cover of the CWA Family Voice.

"Meet Nancy Pelosi" it says. "Leftist Leader Plans Extreme Makeover for Congress." Inside it wrote about her "appalling" twenty-year record in the House.

Prize for most popular pin-up girl goes to Ann Coulter, a perennial at CPAC.  While 13 people came to hear conservative feminist Christina Hoff Summers of the American Enterprise Institute denounce campus feminism and women's studies programs for promoting "a body of egregiously false information," over 1300 lined up to hear one of Ann Coulter's diatribes. 

Her photo on the cover of her latest book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism, shows even more skin than her former cover photos. Her skimpy, sleeveless leotard would make her a good representative of the raunchy, pro-sex feminism that was one of Summers' targets in her attack on Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues.  After her speech Coulter went to the exhibit hall in the parking garage to sign 50 or 60 copies of her book, greatly disappointing the other 500 fans waiting in line, their books clutched closely to their chests, hoping to get closer to CPAC's soft-core queen.

The Leadership Institute, which trains young people to be "tomorrow's conservative leaders," held a series of workshops for campus activists on Thursday where they passed out stickers with a triangle on them that said "Conservative Pride." Instead of pink, they were red, white and blue. When I wandered into the evening reception and spied the sticker I asked the nice-looking young man wearing it if it meant he was a Log Cabin (i.e. gay) Republican.  He recoiled in horror, explaining that the Nazis used the triangle for all sorts of deviants, not just gays.

But "pride," I pointed out, is a trademark word used by gays.  He was even more horrified.

The crowd at this youth reception looked like a gay rights fundraiser — guys in ties — only younger.  The ratio of males to females was about five to one.  The few dark faces didn't surprise me, but the paucity of young women did.  Either there are a lot fewer conservative women than men among today's youth, or they aren't political.

There was one panel on race. Not affirmative action — that was yesterday's issue, but "Conservative Solutions for Urban America."  Among the five participants were Frances Rice, chairman (that's the term used) of the National Black Republican Association, and Niger Innis of the Congress of Racial Equality.  NBRA's mission is to return "African Americans to their Republican Party Roots."  It likes to take pot shots at Democrats, each of whom it holds personally responsible for slavery.  On Thursday morning, right before CPAC began, a few black Republicans went to Nancy Pelosi's office to present their "Reparations Petition" asking for a formal apology "for their party's nearly 200-year history of racism and failed socialism."  They held a press conference and left.

CORE has a strange history.  Founded in 1942, for its first 25 years it was an interracial organization which used  non-violent civil disobedience to end segregation and attack discrimination.  In 1968, CORE shifted to black nationalism, with a focus on black economic development and community self-determination.  Its new chairman, Roy Innis, supported Reagan in the 1980s and switched from the Democratic to the New York Libertarian Party in 1998.  He and his son Niger still run CORE, and have become regulars at various conservative conferences.  Although CORE had a booth in the exhibit area, I never saw any CORE representative behind the table or any literature on top of it.

CPAC is not overtly religious, but any organization that believes in traditional values can't escape it (unlike the godless liberals).   None of the panels were on religion per se, but there was one on "Terrorism: Is Religious Extremism or Secular Extremism the Problem?"  In this debate,"religious extremism" was a code word for Islam, and "secular extremism" was a code word for liberalism.  After it was over, Robert Spencer, the advocate for "Islam is the problem" went to the exhibit area to sell and sign copies of his new book, The Truth About Muhammad: The Founder of the World's Most Intolerant Religion. He has written or edited several books portraying Islam as a threat to Western values.

Twenty feet away and in full sight was the double booth of Muslims for America, a project of the Hasan Family Foundation of Pueblo, Colorado, where Muhammad Ali Hasan passed out red tote bags and talked to passers-by. Co-founded by him and his mother, who sat inside the booth, MfA's brochure simultaneously praises "President Bush: The Muslim World's Savior in 2007," and "Keith Ellison — The All American Congressman." Muslims voted for Bush in 2000, but returned to the Democratic column in 2004.  Ellison is an African-American Democrat from Minnesota who converted to Islam from Catholicism while in college.  Down the walkway was the Islamic Free Market Institute. It is trying to build relationships between Muslims and economic conservatives and involve the Muslim community in the American political process.  No one was behind the table.

Islam is a delicate issue for conservatives. When Ann Coulter used the word "raghead" as a slang word for Muslims twice in her 2006 CPAC speech, conservatives ignored her or played it down. They didn't ask her to apologize. But neither do they want to be seen as racist or anti any religion. They would like to co-opt Muslims as effectively as they have Jewish Republicans.  While many Jews are quite conservative, and a quarter of them voted for Bush in 2004, there was no overt Jewish presence at CPAC.  The only yarmulke I saw was worn by a reporter from Brooklyn.  When I saw a sign saying "Christians and Jews United for Israel, I thought I had finally found a Jewish presence, but they turned out to be Christian Zionists, publishers of The Jerusalem Connection International.  They believe that "Christians are the antidote to Anti-Semitism."

All of the Presidential candidates who came courting conservatives were white males, though the presence of a quasi-Catholic and a Mormon gave the crowd a little religious diversity. There were several lesser-known wannabees (Jim Gilmore, Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee, Duncan Hunter, John Cox, Tom Tancredo) while frontrunner John McCain made a public point of not showing.  When CPAC announced that 12 % of the 1705 conferees who voted in its straw poll wanted McCain to get the Republican nomination, the audience booed.  Mitt Romney came in first with 21%. His reception drew the largest crowd even though the only food was popcorn and his speech was even blander.

With 15 %, Sam Brownback (KS) got more straw votes than McCain and almost matched Romney for numbers of enthusiastic, young supporters passing out stickers in the hallways. His was the only campaign to go negative at CPAC.  Romney was attacked not for being a Mormon (even though one in four people tell pollsters that they wouldn't vote for a Mormon for President) but for being from Massachusetts — the home of flip-floppers! Students for Brownback put styrofoam floppies around the hotel stamped with Romney's varying positions on abortion. Pro-Life Students passed out a leaflet with photos of the two "Flip-Floppers from Massachusetts." (Kerry was the other one).  Anyone wearing a Brownback sticker was denied admittance to the Romney reception.

It is ironic that at a conference where "life" is dogma and abortion is sin, the two frontrunners in the straw poll are or were pro-choice.  Rudy Giuliani got 17% of the straw votes.

I didn't hear all of the candidates' speeches, but of those I did hear, only one repeatedly brought the crowd to its feet.  Newt Gingrich, who has discussed running but not yet declared, sounded more like a Southern Baptist preacher than a history professor. With 14 % he was one point lower than Brownback in the straw poll.  But that was before he began to preach.


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