Eight days ago, Bob Pyle saw Rand Paul speak and was filled up with hope. The Harrisburg, Pennsylvania pastor was among the hundreds who cheered Kentucky's junior senator when he spoke to a conference founded by his father. Paul'd decried the "unconstitutional war" launched by the United States and ISIS. The youthful crowd reminded Pyle that "Rand has made real inroads with the millennials," and was "probably the best guy to run against Hillary."
Alas, Paul was no longer among his faithful. Pyle was about to watch his (potential) 2016 presidential candidate address the annual Values Voter Summit, a gathering of social conservatives who had never warmed to the Pauls. "It's a pretty neoconservative crowd," surmised Pyle.
Is it ever. The first day of the summit was a one-upmanship contest between Republican leaders and conservative activists, who could not say enough of the threat of the Islamic State and a one-day nuclear Iran. Many were girded for a long war against "Islamism." All were downright disgusted with the Obama administration's failure to wage it.
"This is spiritual warfare, and what we need to do is defeat Islamic jihad," said Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who is retiring this year. "Yes, Mr. President, it is about Islam. And I believe that if you have an evil the order of this magnitude, you take it seriously. You declare war on it, you don’t dance around it, just like the Islamic State has declared war on the United States of America. You kill their leader, you kill their council, you kill their army until they wave the white flag of surrender. That’s how you win a war."
A ballroom of social conservatives roared with applause; William Temple, a Georgia pastor who dresses in colonial garb at conference, waved a Gadsden flag and shouted "huzzah!" This kind of rhetoric was not new to the conference, but it never been so dominant. A coalition of social conservative groups, led by the Family Research Council and American Family Association, had launched the event in 2006 and named it for a crosstab in the 2004 exit polls. If you combined the voters who said they were concerned with terrorism and Iraq, they had split fairly evenly between John Kerry and George W. Bush. The voters who were focused on "moral values," 22 percent of the electorate, broke for Bush by 60 points. A conclusion was obvious: Issues like gay marriage and abortion were even better motivators for Republicans than the endless war on terror.
That idea, waning in recent years, has been shattered by the crises in the Middle East. "There is a very big clash going on right now in the Middle East against a civilization that, for 1,300 years, given a respite of a couple of hundred years, has been in conflict with our civilization," said former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a surprisingly successful 2012 presidential contender who is considering a second run. "When I fought President Bush back in 2005 and 2006 about defining this war to the American public, about explaining to the American public who the enemy is, I did so because I believed then as I believe now that this is an existential fight. It has been for a long time. Radical Islam, in one form or another, has been around for a long time, and its borders are very bloody."
The borders seemed to stretch to the parking lot of the Omni Shoreham hotel. "Hezbollah is all over Latin America," said North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows in a panel discussion about threats to freedom. "To have that open border just allows the terrorists to be among us. The tragedy is going to be when one of these terrorist groups attack us in the United States."
When Sen. Paul reached the stage, he didn't argue with any of this. Islamism was a threat, yes. The problem was that an over-reaching foreign policy had given it force.
"Our foreign policy has too often accepted war instead of peace and intervention instead of strength, leading to a host of unintended consequences," said Paul. "Toppling secular dictators in the Middle East led, time and time again, to chaos, and ultimately, that chaos enabled and abetted the rise of radical Islam."
That got applause -- but not as much as Paul got when he explained his response to last week's vote to fund the rebels fighting ISIS in Syria. As he recalled, Paul asked his Senate colleagues to name one Syrian rebel group that would recognize Israel. "Silence," said Paul. "No one answered because not one of these Islamic rebels will ever think about recognizing Israel." The response, he insisted, should have been to "halt all aid to Islamic radicals in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere."
Paul was calling for action, of a sort. That was enough to win over the Values voters. It just didn't bring them to their feet the way Texas Sen. Ted Cruz did, when he called for "a president who will stand up for the over 200 Nigerian schoolgirls held captive by Boko Haram because they’re Christians."
And it didn't win over people the way Sarah Palin did, when she ribbed President Obama for insisting that the Islamic state was actually a perversion of true Islam. Long-time activist Gary Bauer had accused Obama of being "more interested in defending the reputation of Islam than saving the lives of Christians." Palin just laughed.
"He just said that the Islamic State, ISIS, isn’t Islamic," said Palin of the president. "You know who that is news to? The Islamic State, who calls itself the Islamic State. And it’s news to thousands and thousands of Muslims who’ve joined their death cult. So if the Islamic State wasn’t Islamic, well, why does it have such appeal around the – you guessed it – the Muslim world?"