Mike Pence and the Values Voters

On Saturday, attendees of the 2010 Values Voters Summit selected Indiana congressman Mike Pence in its 2012 presidential straw poll. Watch five minutes of his speech and you’ll understand why. You probably won’t understand that you’re not watching a clip from one of the many Tea Party conventions, but more on that in a minute.

Pence has been married for 25 years, has three children, and has served in the House for 7 years. According to Wikipedia’s summary of his political views, he appears to be a real, Tea Party-style conservative: He always votes for tax cuts, he opposed several Bush administration programs, including No Child Left Behind, opposed TARP, and of course, opposed Obamacare. He supports unlimited engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, opposes closing Guantanamo Bay, and opposes trying detainees in civilian court.

Pence is a decent-looking white-haired guy with a smooth speaking voice that occasionally gives hints of a drawl. He delivered his speech flawlessly, seeming relaxed and good-humored. (He favors jokes about Nancy Pelosi, but to his credit also made one about Fox News.) He began by saying he is a “Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” Wild applause.

The speech itself was the most hard-line stump speech I’ve heard a conservative candidate give perhaps ever, though not in the John Boehner, podium-pounding “Hell No You Can’t“ mode. It wasn’t angry or even excessively passionate. But Pence effortlessly covered every shibboleth of both the Religious Right and the Tea Party. He heralded Tea Party victories around the country, including that of Christine O’Donnell, and credited the wins with pulling the current Republicans in Congress to the right. (Apparently, for Pence, being called the Party of No is a sign of the GOP’s health.) He cheered George W. Bush’s “courage” for pushing the surge in Iraq and said the CIA should be able to “fight wars like wars.” He talked about repealing Obamacare, “bondage to big government,” and obliquely opposed repealing the Bush tax cuts. For the values voter, this guy is the whole package and more.

A couple of things that struck me as noteworthy:

1) The biggest applause of the speech came when Pence lambasted Obama for criticizing settlements being constructed in the West Bank. Pence formulate the line as a superlative: “Let the world know this, if it knows nothing else: America stands with Israel.” (Emphasis mine.) The crowd shot to its feet and roared with applause. Sure, we all know Christians love Israel, but, why do they find that the most exciting line in a speech full of their favorite things? And does Pence really believe that support for Israel is the premiere value the U.S. should project to the world?

2) Though Pence insisted that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell “remain the policy of the U.S. military,” and he did use the phrase “defend traditional marriage,” he did not say “gay marriage” or “same-sex marriage.” This bit came near the end and almost seemed like an afterthought. There was no mention of Prop 8 or “activist judges,” or anything of the sort. In fact, gay marriage didn’t even rank into the top five issues the Values Voters said they’re worried about. (Abortion was first, but the rest were all economic issues.)

Observation #2 gives fuel to my theory that those who think the Tea Party is driven by some other demographic besides white evangelicals are misguided. Of course, there is no doubt that everyone in the room on Saturday, including Mike Pence, is against same-sex marriage. But the whole structure of his speech indicated that he knows what evangelicals—a huge number of whom I would bet serious money are also Tea Partiers—are angry about a lot of other things right this minute. Not just abortion and gay marriage, but trying detainees in civilian courts, health care reform, the stimulus, everything. With that much ammunition, there’s no need to pander too explicitly about same-sex marriage.

It’s also interesting that Palin came in last (of the major contenders) in the straw poll. Though I think there’s a distinct possibility she will run in 2012, I’m increasingly inclined to believe even the rightest of the right realize that would be an epic disaster, and would be happier to see her as either second-in-command or just a cheerleader for the cause. (Palin came in second in the vice-presidential poll after Pence, who won that, too.)

There’s not much original to say about the political incoherence of all this: that the cheers were just as loud for open-ended military boondoggles and tax cuts as they are for fiscal discipline. Pence shares Palin’s reflexive partisanship on behalf of Israel that may or may not be rooted in evangelical apocalyptic notions about the Middle East. Personally, I’m dismayed to see evangelicals keeping up their reputations as being some of the most steadfast supporters of war, torture, and outside-the-law detention.

The moral of the story is: can you tell the difference between Values Voters and teabaggers? ‘Cause I can’t.