Near the main hall of the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference, right next to where Ralph Reed was holding court with presidential candidates, House Republicans, and freelance morality consultant Dick Morris, a bespectacled and fast-talking woman from New Jersey stops me and hands me a card. Her name is Nora Craig. Her cause is the eventual abolition of most government health care programs, made possible by a network of nongovernment free clinics.
"People want an end to big government," says Craig. "They want limited government. Before you can end the support that big government is giving, you have to create the support on a community level first."
Craig explains how this would work. Anna Little stands by and nods. Little is a one-term former mayor of Highlands, N.J., who ran for Congress last year and lost by 11 points. She reminds me that the movement's founder has testified in the Senate on Rand Paul's invitation. She's lobbying Gov. Chris Christie to support something like this. If a GOP star entertains the idea, well, then, people may listen. "It's a replacement for Medicaid," says Little. "It's charity-based. It could, through federalism, be a replacement for Obamacare as well."
Is the goal of the plan to create the sort of health care system that existed before the onset of the New Deal and the Great Society? That's exactly it, Craig says.
"There are no new things in the plan," she says. "There are only things in history that were pushed aside for a new idea. Well, when that new idea is proven not to work, all we need to do is look back in history and see what worked. And what worked in the past was charity care with the church as an anchor." She pounds her left fist into her right palm. "You've got to have that anchor!"
Democrats have convinced themselves that Republicans blundered mightily by voting for Rep. Paul Ryan's budget, with its radical reforms of Medicare and Medicaid. Republicans aren't sure yet. The hardest of the GOP's hardcore activists have another take: The GOP did exactly the right thing. Now's the time to tell voters that entitlements have to be cut and reformed and that doing so will not result in a re-enactment of the bad parts of The Grapes of Wrath.
"The electorate is getting smarter," suggests John Radell, a Delaware activist who's convinced Republicans can run on the Ryan plan. "They're getting smarter because they're under a lot more economic pressure."
This is sort of what Republican politicians are saying. One problem: They were saying it louder before the polls started to curdle, and before they lost a safe seat in western New York to a Democrat whose every other spoken word was Medicare. At the Faith & Freedom conference, every leading Republican presidential candidate not named Palin made some sort of showing. Newt Gingrich, who hasn't actually held an event since before Memorial Day, limited his to a video address. He is on a politically convenient vacation after alienating the Republican base by saying Ryan's budget was too "radical"—Gingrich doesn't use the word pejoratively—to sell with Americans. There would first need to be a long national debate about entitlements. Conservatives would need to win it.
Social conservatives didn't get what Gingrich was talking about. The entitlements debate was on; they were ready. They had ideas like Nora Craig's make-Medicaid-irrelevant plan. At this conference, there just weren't many Republicans matching them, boldness for boldness. The pollster Frank Luntz gave a short presentation proving that most voters expected Social Security to go bust and expected their children to be worse off than they are. When I asked Luntz what advice he'd give to Republicans to frame the Medicare debate—something people in the crowd thought would be obvious and easy—he apologized and said his head wasn't in it.
The presidential hopefuls didn't have any more answers. Take Tim Pawlenty's speech; in the post-Huckabee campaign, he's the evangelical Christian with the most direct line to these voters. His campaign theme has been "telling the truth," a neat little formulation that digs at President Obama while raising a subliminal question about Mitt Romney. At the conference, Pawlenty was harder on Obama. "He won't tell the American people the truth about what it will take to really fix these problems!" he said. He reminded the crowd—twice—that he'd announced his presidential bid in Iowa by promising to end farm subsidies. He just never mentioned entitlements.
The candidates' speeches were nothing special. Their stump speeches were shortened for time, and padded with at least one religious story or reference. (Jon Huntsman got the best of this exercise, telling a story about his adopted Chinese daughter—his "little bean curd"—that generated real, audible Awwwws from the crowd.) And the hundreds of social conservatives in the room appreciated all of that. But, really, since the start of the Tea Party movement, social conservatives have panicked about debt and the welfare state and the threat of American decline. They like people who get specific about how they'll fix it.
Those people are not running for president. A panel on "Teavangelicals" turned out, disappointingly, to be a forum for the well-bred radio host Jordan Sekulow to warn about Ron Paul's views of Israel. One panelist, a Florida Tea Party activist named Patricia Sullivan, was a little more positive, and praised the state's anti-"Obamacare" campaigner-turned-governor Rick Scott for cutting the budget. Of course, Scott is one of the least popular governors in America. Democrats are convinced they can drape Scott around the neck of the next GOP presidential candidate and bring home Florida for Obama. Hold on: Why did Williams think this was a good model for Republicans?
"Scott's a new breed of public servant," she explained. "He's doing what he said he'd do. If he doesn't get re-elected, it doesn't matter to him, and that's what we need. We need men and women who've got spines, who're ready to take two-year or four-year tours of duty and not care if they lose."
That's what the Tea Party class of 2010 promised to do. This is why Republicans have been avoiding all manner of smartly placed traps on the entitlement question. Journalists, they can deal with. What's tougher is the army of libertarians who've always wanted to end the welfare state, now joined with social conservatives who are obsessed with the same thing.
There are pols who aren't fighting this. On Saturday, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell spent a little time away from the podium to meet activists and talk to reporters. He runs Reed's affiliate in Ohio; he's thinking about running for U.S. Senate. He was the only Republican in that position who said what the social conservatives believe.
"Clean water is important to us," said Blackwell. "Decent housing is important to us. But they're not rights. And we have to begin to say that what's important is that we in a rational way are able to reform these programs in a way to save them. And, yes, if it means that somewhere down the line individuals have to make sacrifices, because the rationalization of the system means we save it, but we are also doing it in a more efficient way. … I don't think too many Americans will object to that. At the end of the day we're going to get back to making sure we're in a position to finance the wars in which we engage. Does that mean we can do that without sacrificing? No. We have to make sacrifices. But what's more important? Our freedom and security or the gluttony of the federal government?"