CLEVELAND – The religious right hasn’t got much play on the big stage of the GOP convention. To find the heart of the social conservative movement in Cleveland this week, you had to head to a luncheon at a steakhouse a few blocks away.
The lunch, sponsored by the Family Research Council Action and the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, served as a shadow convention of sorts. While many elected officials have shunned speaking slots at the convention, the stage at the two-hour luncheon featured three current or former governors, a senator, two U.S. representatives and a barbershop quartet. Their message, delivered in harmony: The thrice-married, dirty-mouthed New York-based reality TV star at the top of the Republican ticket has put nary a dint in their long-term political and policy agenda.
The primary cycle was somewhat of an embarrassment for the activists in the room. The GOP’s leading candidate repeatedly waffled on abortion, made clumsy overtures to the gay community, fumbled Bible verses and in general, seemed to care very little about their issues. But he won the GOP nomination anyway.
But they put their best face forward, claiming that over the course of the primary, they had bent Trump to their will, while behind the scenes pushing the party farther to the right than ever.
In Trump’s indifference to their issues, social conservatives could find one silver lining: His campaign hasn’t made much of an effort to steer the party to the center ahead of November’s election — and no where was this more evident than in the 2016 GOP party platform.
While convention platform debates are typically a snoozefest, this year’s proceedings were closely scrutinized to determine what sort of imprint Trump had put on the party and it turns out, little at all, in the realm of hot button issues for social conservatives. The platform, among other things, calls pornography a public health threat to society, urges lawmakers use the Bible as a guide in legislating, promotes the teaching of the Bible in schools, while spewing out a litany of anti-abortion and anti-LGBT rights positions.
“What happened that’s unusual is that the Trump campaign did not try to interfere with the platform. They allowed the elected delegates to do their work,” Tony Perkins, the president of Family Research Center Action, told TPM. He said they began planning for a platform fight six months ago,
The platform serves two major functions. It acts as a campaign document for Republicans to rally around, but this year, it also signals where conservative activists intend to pull the party if and when the Trump-ster fire burns out.
“We want to make it abundantly clear — we don’t want this to be an election based on personalities, but an election on philosophy and principals,” Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), a co-chair of the platform committee, told TPM.
Donald Trump also threw social conservatives a bone by making his running mate Mike Pence, who has enacted very aggressive anti-gay and anti-abortion legislation as Indiana’s governor. They latched on to Pence as a sign that Trump wasn’t the obstacle to their movement that every aspect of his biography and his campaign priorities suggested he would be.
“I think it shows good judgment on Trump’s part,” Foxx said.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) pointed to the Pence pick, as well as to the list of potential Supreme Court nominees Trump released a few weeks ago, as proof that he would have the religious right’s back at America’s highest court, a central tool for the anti-abortion strategy.
“We know who Hillary Clinton will appoint will not support life or the repeal of Roe v. Wade,” Brownback told TPM. “Those three things create a situation where it’s very clear where either side would go on the Supreme Court and if you’re for life and for religious liberty, you need to support Donald Trump.”
For all havoc Trump wreaked on the anti-abortion movement’s careful messaging strategy — like the time he praised Planned Parenthood, or advocated for criminal punishment for women seeking abortions, or insisted that the GOP anti-abortion platform would include exemptions for rape, incest and life of the mother — Dannenfelser, whose group leads the electoral arm of the anti-abortion movement, pointed to the policy pledge the group convinced Trump to commit to. It calls for a 20-week abortion ban, the defunding of Planned Parenthood, and appointment of the anti-abortion judges.
“Trump was our last choice. We got that commitment from him as well,” Dannenfelser told TPM. “He’s not willing to run as a pro-choice candidate, he just wasn’t, and we can guess — we can find all the reasons, if we could look deep into his soul, we would, we’d figure it all out — but we really don’t know. We do know one thing, and that is that the muscle of the pro-life movement is strong enough and the discipline of the GOP is sure enough that you have to be pro-life enough.”
But not everyone was so confident in Trump’s commitment to their movement.
“No one leader can make America great again. Donald Trump can’t do it. Nobody can,” David Benham — one half of the telegenic twins who lost their HGTV show over anti-gay comments — told TPM. “We do not know Donald Trump and we can not and will not vouch for his character so as a social conservative, I’m having a really hard time with Donald Trump.”
Tommy Valentine, a 22-year-old delegate from Virginia, said he felt like Trump was costing them a major opportunity.
“We had really good candidates and this was our chance to really turn back the tide on what’s been happening in the last eight years. … Out of 17 candidates, we nominated the worst possible candidate,” Valentine told TPM at the lunch. “I’m just scared. I think Trump’s gonna go down in flames. There is no party unity and you see better speakers at CPAC then you do at this Republican convention because nobody wants to hear Donald Trump.”
As he spoke, Valentine fought back tears.