Values Voter Summit: ground zero for the no-compromise wing of the Republican Party
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council talks on conservatives and Congress
The anti-Obamacare crowd will give Ted Cruz "a rock star reception," Perkins says
As trench warfare over the government shutdown drags into its 11th day, a number of Republicans with visible roles in the stalemate, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, will take a breather from Capitol Hill on Friday to speak at the Values Voter Summit, one of the conservative movement’s marquee annual events.
Pretty much everyone in official Washington has taken a beating in public opinion polls during the shutdown mess. Republicans, however, continue to shoulder most of the blame.
But don’t expect to hear calls for GOP compromise from the hundreds of activists, elected officials and conservative celebrities at Friday’s kickoff to this weekend’s summit, said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, the event’s sponsor.
Instead, he said, expect this year’s Values Voter Summit to be ground zero for the no-compromise wing of the Republican Party, and a hive of anti-Obamacare fervor where polarizing leaders like Cruz will be welcomed as conquering heroes.
Perkins spoke to CNN about his annual conference and the state of the conservative movement as it goes toe-to-toe with the Republican establishment and a White House that shows few signs of backing down.
Here is his interview, condensed and lightly edited.
Q: What message do you expect the congressional leaders speaking at the summit to have about the shutdown, and any potential deals to reopen the government or raise the debt ceiling?
Perkins: If you look at most of those we have coming to speak here, they’re conservative leaders who have been pushing this effort to delay or suspend Obamacare. I don’t think you are going to see them saying, ‘Hey, we are going to settle here,’ except for maybe Paul Ryan. I think they are going to use this as a platform to push for something of significance to come out of this showdown that has occurred between Republicans and the president.
Q: Who wields more power in the GOP these days: Republican leadership in Congress, or the outside groups and conservative members who have tried so aggressively to dismantle Obamacare?
Perkins: I don’t know why people are surprised by this. Just go back and look at what happened. In 2006 and 2008, Rahm Emanuel was very successful in knocking off moderate Republicans as he headed up the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And then the president forced them to walk the plank on Obamacare, and they got hammered in the 2010 election by conservatives. All of a sudden we saw this ideological shift. People running against Obamacare got elected in 2010. And that continued into 2012.
So now you’ve got this strong contingent of social, fiscal and foreign policy-related conservatives in the House who are simply doing what they campaigned on. They campaigned on repealing Obamacare, and that is what they are doing. And people are surprised by it. I know it’s amazing that politicians do what they campaigned on, but that’s what these guys are doing, and people can’t figure it out.
Q: So what’s your reaction to the swift rise of Ted Cruz?
Perkins: He has become a de facto leader of the Republican Party. He is what people are looking for. Somebody who will stand up and say, ‘This is what I stand for, this is what I believe.’ I would venture to say that he is going to get a rock star reception here.
What he is doing is he is filling vacuum. And Mike Lee as well. There has been a complete breakdown between the formal GOP leadership and the outside conservative groups. There is even a breakdown between the GOP leadership and the conservatives on the inside. So you have Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Jim Jordan, Steve Scalise and others who are filling that void.
Q: What’s your take on John Boehner’s leadership, as House Speaker, during this process?
Perkins: I think he pulled it out of the fire by listening to his membership on this. I think his speakership was really in trouble, because he continued to go a direction that the membership did not want to go. These guys are simply doing what they said they were going to do once they were elected. I think he has a very difficult path to go. Now, his inner circle is not necessarily reflective of the conservatives. So he is being pulled in the opposite direction of where his members in his conference want to go.
Q: But he’s helped himself on the right?
Perkins: There is no question he has. I talk to members, the conservatives, daily. And I have heard very good remarks in terms of how he has handled this, both publicly and privately. Now, that could all change if we see a capitulation here at the end.
Q: Where do you stand on these primary challengers to veteran GOP senators like Mitch McConnell, Lamar Alexander, Pat Roberts, Lindsey Graham? Would you prefer to see the old guard lose in 2014?
Perkins: I think it’s good for the process. The Republican establishment has lost touch with where conservatives are. It’s a challenge. The GOP has become a big tent in some respects. You’ve got some libertarian-minded people in there. You’ve got social conservatives. You’ve got fiscal conservatives. There is a pretty big overlap between those two in many cases. The tea party has changed a lot of the dynamics for the Republican Party. You have probably 80%, 75% of the tea party are also social conservatives. But they are organized in ways that they haven’t been in a long time. And that’s hard for the establishment to handle.
Q: You mentioned Paul Ryan earlier, who floated a solution to the shutdown fight that did not include Obamacare as a bargaining chip. He took some heat for that. How is perceived right now in the conservative movement?
Perkins: He still has high standing. We’ll see. He’s not out of the mix. Look, it’s a challenge when you hold a formal leadership position, especially in the House, where you do have a growing contingent of conservatives, but you’ve also got the establishment-type Republicans who are in more of the leadership positions and have been around longer, and you are trying to balance all of them. Paul Ryan, being a player, having a seat at the table, it is a process of give and take. He has been given some element of grace from that standpoint.
Q: If you go to any conservative event and ask grass-roots activists about Chris Christie, you get the same reaction: He’s a liberal, he pals around with Obama. But is that fair? Isn’t he just as conservative on abortion and same-sex marriage, for example, as other prominent Republican leaders?
Perkins: Well, he is not in the Rudy Giuliani school of social politics. But he was certainly to the left of where Mitt Romney was, I think, on some issues. His stated positions. There are some perception things, and then some policy things. We have had a few policy issues with him in the past. The perception is the way he publicly positioned himself right before the election with Obama. That incident remains very prominent in people’s minds.
Q: Did you invite him to the summit?
Perkins: No. We invite conservatives that we work with.
Q: So you don’t view him as a conservative?
Perkins: Well, when we get around to the presidential, if he is considered a contender at that point, we will issue invitations to everybody. We’ve had Rudy Giuliani, we’ve had John McCain. But that’s not where we are focused this year. We want to give room for giving platform to the conservatives that we work with in Congress.
Q: So would you say the beating heart of the conservative movement right now is in Congress?
Perkins: No, I would disagree. The strength of the conservative movement is in the states. We are not on defense on the state level. We are on the offense. We passed, in the last three years, 200 pieces of pro-life legislation. We are strengthening marriage. We are doing some good things in the red states across the country. So that’s exciting. I am a little biased because I was state legislator, and I am more inclined toward the states. I have worked with governors. (Louisiana Gov.) Bobby Jindal is a friend of mine. And I have been a legislator. Legislators don’t have to do a whole lot, except they talk a lot. They do shape policy. But you can walk away from that.
It’s the governors, it’s the executives who actually have to implement things and make things happen and take care of real needs and infrastructure. It’s hands-on. I think a proving ground for leaders. I think we would be a lot better off right now in America if we had a former governor in the White House instead of a senator. This is nothing against my friends here in Washington, but I will have to look hard when I’ve got a good conservative governor running for president, because their executive skills have been proven.
Q: The Family Research Council went up with a Christian radio ad in Virginia this week on behalf of Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican gubernatorial candidate. Democrats have relentlessly attacked him as a right wing social crusader, and it appears to be hurting him in the polls among women. Is it politically dangerous today to be a staunch cultural conservative running for office in a swing state?
Only if you are unwilling to talk about those issues. If you are willing to stand on your record, the fact that you have passed laws that have protected women against unscrupulous abortionists, then yeah, absolutely you can run on it. If you are not going to run on them and talk about them and just let liberals define you on those issues, then you should not.
Q: So you don’t think Cuccinelli is talking enough about cultural issues?
Perkins: No, I don’t. He has got a great record. He has defended women against criminal behavior of abortionists. He supported and defended the clinic regulation act, which is the kind of stuff that keeps the Kermit Gosnells of the world in check. There is nothing to be apologetic for about that.
Q: Who makes you more anxious, President Obama or Hillary Clinton?
Perkins: President Obama. In the wake of Obama, the prospect of a Hillary presidency would be very concerning. If we were able to turn the clock back, I actually think we would have seen a more moderate government – certainly not to my liking, but much more moderate than what Barack Obama has done. But he has moved the line so much that I think that even a Hillary presidency would be radically to the left of center. Just because he has moved the bar.