The Vanguard.org's Rod Martin unplugged
Bill Berkowitz printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Jan 22, 2008 at 09:46:46 AM EST
A conservative insider's take on the GOP presidential contest, the state of the conservative movement, and MoveOn.org

The Christian Right's inability to come together and back one presidential candidate underscores the reality that there are differences within the movement. The deaths in 2007 of longtime movement icons Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy, and the retirement of Robertson as CEO of CBN, is indicative of a movement in transition, and perhaps even turmoil.

Some in the media, and on the left, view these fault lines as symbolic of a major meltdown on the right. It has spurred the churning out of a series of pre-mature obituaries; stories gleefully detailing perceived -- and real -- rifts within the movement. Parts of the Traditional Media may conclude the Religious Right's days are numbered.

Rod Martin comes at it from a different perspective, that of a conservative insider. Relatively unknown outside conservative circles, Martin is a core movement insider.

In the course of the interview -- conducted before the Iowa caucuses via a series of e-mail exchanges -- Martin talked about the state of the conservative movement; the role of the Religious Right in the upcoming presidential election and beyond; and MoveOn.org, an organization that Martin claims is a constant subject of conversation for conservatives.

Up from Arkansas

Martin grew up "a poor kid in Arkansas," earned a "fantastic scholarship" from the University of Arkansas, went to Cambridge University in Great Britain, and wound up in law school at Baylor University in Texas.

He served as special counsel to PayPal.com founder Peter Thiel, a company described by Mother Jones' Josh Harkinson as a place "where employees often kept Bibles in their cubicles and held workplace prayer sessions." PayPal's founders "hoped to establish an alternative electronic currency to bypass national fiscal policies, in much the same way a previous generation of conservatives had advocated reviving the gold standard," Harkinson wrote. PayPal was sold to eBay and" its group of believers dispersed across the think-tank and media landscapes."

Under then Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Martin served as Director of Policy Planning and Research, and in 2000, he ran unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in Arkansas' second district.

In 2004, Martin edited and co-authored "Thank You, President Bush: Reflections on the War on Terror, Defense of the Family, and Revival of the Economy," a book attempting to respond to the spate of best-selling anti-Bush books.

Martin founded TheVanguard.org -- whose agenda includes support for a flat tax, missile defense, and Social Security privatization -- which will officially launch sometime in 2008.
"None of those guys are relevant," a Republican consultant who asked not to be named told Harkinson. And MoveOn Executive Director Eli Pariser pointed out that "TheVanguard folks are spending a lot of time thinking about what they want," he notes, "and then figuring out how to spin it to their members."

Federalist Society, Gun Owners of America, the National Rifle Association, Council for National Policy, National Federation of Republican Assemblies, Arlington Group

Martin belongs to the Federalist Society, holds Life Memberships in Gun Owners of America and the National Rifle Association and he is on the Board of Governors of the Council for National Policy (CNP) (which the New York Times has described as "the club of the most powerful" conservative leaders, and the blog the DailyKos referred to it as "Sith Lords of the Ultra Right"), and is the national, security committee chairman for the Arlington Group (the coalition of all the leading Christian Right organizations).

In addition, Martin is President of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies ("the Republican Wing of the Republican Party") and the national group to which the California Republican Assembly (CRA) is affiliated.\

By signing confidentiality agreements, Martin acknowledged that he is not allowed to talk about his membership in either the CNP or the Arlington Group. However, despite the continued defeats suffered by conservative candidates in California, he is bullish on the work of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies (NFRA).

"The NFRA is an effort to take national the tremendous success the California Republican Assembly has had in organizing conservatives within the Republican Party," Martin said. "CRA has long been the largest Republican organization in California, and its members have been highly influential in advancing conservative candidates at all levels of politics, and crucially, within the Party itself."

"If you read Markos Moulitsas' and Jerome Armstrong's 'Crashing the Gate,' you know that the problem afflicts both major parties: hacks and consultants run the show, while the rank-and-file too often gets kicked to the curb. So the NFRA ... exists to take our party back for the mainstream, grassroots Republicans across America who give money, walk precincts, and are terribly disappointed in their leadership. We are only a few years old, but we're beginning to have a lot of success in a number of states, and the movement is growing quickly."

Bill Berkowitz (BB): Many are writing about a so-called "crack-up" of the Religious Right. How do you see the splits that seem to be dividing the evangelical movement?

Rod Martin (RM): I think they're overblown if looked at as a long-term phenomenon, but they're very significant for the primaries ahead. [Former New York City mayor Rudy] Giuliani's mere existence throws the whole conservative movement into turmoil, and since he's the sole 'Rockefeller Republican' in the race (to revive what many thought was a long-dead term), the inability of evangelicals to coalesce around a single standard bearer gives him a once-in-a-lifetime shot at capturing the nomination.

The additional fact that extremely large numbers of evangelicals simply will not vote for a pro-abortion candidate means that, in an age of 537 vote margins, his nomination would probably hand the White House to Hillary. This is not likely to be a gap which can be bridged.
Longer term, however, the leaders of the evangelical movement are largely in unison in both values and aims, and for the most part, they get along quite well on a personal level. So, I think the experience of this election cycle will probably ensure that they are more united -- not less -- going forward.

2008 may well prove to be a missed opportunity, but it is no crack-up, and evangelicals will continue to play a growing -- and increasingly pivotal role.
As an aside, the astonishing growth in the number of evangelical Hispanics over the past decade strongly underlines this point. But that's a different question.

BB: You mention unity within the evangelical movement? Is this perhaps wishful thinking?

RM: No, although it's a fair question. These guys are united on principle. They (we) have badly fumbled on uniting behind a single Republican Presidential candidate. I think they'll learn a great deal from that going into the next cycle, but even more to the point, I think that's a pretty small part of what they do. On the issues stuff, they're far more together. They represent one of the oldest, largest and most important constituencies in America, and that's not going away either.

BB: Will evangelicals ultimately consolidate around the Party's presidential candidate even if that candidate happens to be Giuliani, or will "values voters" sit out the election?

RM: The movement will split on this. A lot of people will vote for Giuliani. A lot of key leaders will withhold endorsement, a few will go [along] with Pat Robertson, only a few will actually condemn the nominee. If a serious third party challenge emerges (such as has been discussed in several private meetings now), that could be another ballgame. But the real issue remains at the margin: can anyone realistically expect to rally the faithful -- or the nearly 100% of them that will be needed -- for a pro-abort nominee in an age of 537-vote margins?

I don't think so [value voters will sit out the election]. I think you'll see depressed turnout, just as in 2006 and, for that matter, 1996, and the Democrat will win. It would take not just a Herculean effort but a miracle to avoid this. I believe in miracles, so I won't say it's impossible, but I still don't see how Giuliani can possibly count to 51. The facts that (1) Hillary will turn out a lot of first-time women voters and (2) MoveOn and company will turn out a similarly impressive number of first-time youth voters only adds to this problem.

Their base will be playing their A game, ours won't. Period.

Now if any other Republican is the nominee -- Romney, Thompson, Huckabee -- that's a whole different matter. I think Hillary would be in a lot of trouble indeed, for a long list of reasons. I am not generally pessimistic about 2008. In fact, it could be an astonishingly good year for us.

BB: How so?

RM: First, we could definitely win the Presidency. Whether with Hillary or Obama, Democrats are far from invulnerable this year. The war has utterly ceased to be a winning issue for them, Charlie Rangel's tax plan makes them a big fat target, and their own various baggage (Peter Paul and Norman Hsu leap to mind) only adds to this. It's possible, but it won't be easy.

But the White House is just the tip of the iceberg. Six months ago, people were talking about seven or eight Senate seats going Democrat. No one's talking that way now. Two or three is pretty likely, which would still be a smaller majority than the Republicans had two years ago, and which is pretty amazing given the lopsided number of seats we have to defend this year. Even more to the point, if a decent candidate can be found against Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, and especially if Huckabee ultimately runs against Mark Pryor in Arkansas, we might actually hold even. That would set up a retaking of the majority in 2010 similar to what we did in 2002.

And the House of Representatives is far better still. Right now, there are over 60 Democrat House members in districts George Bush carried in 2004, over 50 in seats he carried by over 55%. Do you think there might be some vulnerabilities there? We only need 16 pickups to take back the majority, in a year where the Democrats' freshmen -- virtually all of whom ran to the right of the Republicans they replaced -- are going to be saddled with a far-left Presidential nominee, the MoveOn agenda, and the Charlie Rangel tax plan.

Am I predicting we keep the White House, pick up the House of Representatives, and hold even in the Senate? Not exactly. But it's very possible. It's very doable.

BB: And, will Huckabee maintain the surge that has pushed him to near the top in Iowa?

RM: He is so far. He's the best retail politician I've ever met except Bill Clinton, and even there, I'd put them on a par. No one should ever make the mistake of underestimating Mike Huckabee.

BB: What role do you see TheVanguard.org playing in Election 2008?

RM: Think MoveOn but conservative. We are not 'an answer to MoveOn' as some groups have claimed to be: our purpose is not to be reactionary, and there are issues -- like their recent Facebook campaign -- on which we'd gladly team up with them. We don't mean to 'answer' them: we mean to do what they do, just for the other side.

BB: Recently, Tom DeLay and Ken Blackwell launched The Coalition for a Conservative Majority (CCM). What will the CCM be doing? How many conservative MoveOn's can there be?

RM: Well, those are two very different questions, so one at a time.

Regarding DeLay and Blackwell's Coalition for a Conservative Majority, I'm all for it, and I think it has tremendous potential to play an important role in a market segment our movement has let wither over the past six years, specifically, real on-the-ground grassroots.

Most political groups these days are nothing more than a mailing list. Tom DeLay's vision for CCM is about real people and real 'boots on the ground,' motivated by conservatism and not party loyalty. It's also distinctly different from MoveOn or TheVanguard in that it is intentionally offline (for the most part) and aimed at people who wouldn't be attracted to that newer sort of group.

There are quite a few of those folks around; and moreover, I can assure you, Tom knows what he's doing.

(Plus, I have to say: I'm excited about anything that gets Ken Blackwell back into the fray. He's a tremendous person. We were really sorry he lost [the Ohio governor's] election [in November 2006].)

Now as to your second question -- how many conservative MoveOns can there be? -- I don't know how many there 'could' be, but right now there are precisely none.

TheVanguard.Org hasn't even launched (and that might not even be our name by the time we do). Freedom's Watch [an organization which in August launched a $15 million campaign to drum up public support for President Bush's surge in Iraq and has recently turned its attention to Iran] is 'answering' MoveOn, but they aren't MoveOn and don't seem to be trying to do anything vaguely similar to MoveOn: what they're doing is almost identical to 2004's Progress for America, which is another niche conservatives must fill, and something the Freedom's Watch team appears to be very good at indeed.

NumbersUSA seems to me to be all-immigration-all-the-time, which is great, but once again, isn't the multi-issue worldview-based MoveOn. And so on and so forth.

MoveOn is really unique. There's nothing like it on the right or the left. Their success causes everyone on the right to talk about them because they're a great attention-getter and fundraising hook: shoot, about this time last year, a friend of mine launched a blog (!) and called it a "conservative MoveOn". But just saying it doesn't make it so. By contrast, we're trying to actually duplicate their business model. ... We find [MoveOn's leadership] to be thoroughly impressive, stark differences of opinion notwithstanding. I'd be very happy to buy them a drink sometime.

BB: What do you think about the so-called generational changes in the conservative movement? The founding generation is in its twilight (Robertson, Colson, Weyrich, Wildmon, Schlafly, the LaHayes) or has passed on (Falwell, Kennedy, Rushdoony). There has been a rise of megachurch leaders like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels who seem to distance themselves from being included in the Christian Right? Is there a generation gap developing; less solidarity on divisive social issues such as gays and abortion?

RM: I don't really think so. There's always been a certain amount of diversity, and while a few guys like Rick Warren (and Mike Huckabee, for that matter) have taken some stands which would seem outside the normal Evangelical issue brief (on global warming, for instance), these are also outside the boundaries of social conservatism per se. So while any number of older or younger Evangelicals might disagree on tax issues or foreign policy or whatever, when you get back to things which are more obviously "moral" issues (I use quotation marks because on some level everything is a moral issue), the degree of unity is pretty high regardless of age.

As one of the youngest guys in the room, I feel pretty confident in saying that.

[ed: for more recent Talk To Action Huckabee stories, see: Huckabee Endorses His Christian Reconstructionist Former Policy Adviser, A Stealth Campaign to Help Huck: Uncovered, Huckabee's Jewish Problem]




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