Bill Berkowitz: Brownback's Mountain
Although branding himself a 'full scale conservative' and hoping to win support from the religious right, the Kansas Republican has an uphill climb to the nomination
Although he hasn't yet cracked double figures in early GOP presidential preference polls, Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback has achieved at least three things since announcing the formation of his 2008 presidential exploratory committee. He has set up the Brownback for President website, rounded up 20 or so high-profile folks for his exploratory committee, and he has adopted a catch phrase that he hopes will separate him from the stack of conservative competitors in the field.
"I have decided, after much prayerful consideration, to consider a bid for the Republican nomination for the presidency," Brownback said in a statement. "There is a real need in our country to rebuild the family and renew our culture and there is a need for genuine conservatism and real compassion in the national discussion."
"Despite his strong appeal among Protestant evangelicals and his Methodist roots, Brownback converted to Roman Catholicism in 2002 with the support of Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., another prominent social conservative," the Associated Press pointed out in early December. "He says his faith guides his opposition to abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research."
"Brownback's faith also leads him to tackle social injustice around the world. He's spearheaded legislation to fight genocide in Sudan, cut down human slave trafficking and prison recidivism."
All of which leads to Brownback calling himself a "full scale conservative."
Catchy phrase notwithstanding, Brownback’s road to the nomination is decidedly uphill.
Full scale conservatism
During an appearance on PBS' "Talk of the Nation," the American Conservative Union's David Keene pointed out that movement conservatives have not yet found their perfect candidate. While most religious right leaders and other movement activists appear less than enamored with the conservative credentials of the candidates, Senator Brownback is hoping to capture their support.
According to The Right Field’s Matt Browner Hamlin, the Kansas Senator begun branding himself the "full scale conservative" at events in South Carolina, Kansas, and Iowa, after giving it a national go on ABC's "This Week" in late November.
"'Full scale conservative' is a powerful phrase,” Hamlin has pointed out. “It conveys Brownback's commitment to movement conservatism and not some sort of watered-down, Johnny Come Lately conservatism that one might see in other GOP contenders. It conveys forcefulness and dedication -- themes that extend beyond ideology to suggest personal qualities that GOP voters want to see, particularly as it relates to how the next president carries on the Iraq war."
"Full scale conservative could be to 2008 what compassionate conservative was to 2000. At least, that's what... Brownback's messaging consultants are hoping."
However, as with much that comes out of the world of branding, "full scale conservative" is sufficiently ambiguous -- opening the door to multiple interpretations. Does it signify adherence to the anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-immigration, pro-Iraq war agenda of the religious right? Does it include the right's smaller government, anti-regulatory, tax-relief-for-the-wealthy economic agenda of the think tanks? What about the recent embrace by some evangelicals of a kinder gentler agenda which includes AIDS in Africa, poverty and an assortment of environmental issues?
During one of his recent trips to Iowa, Brownback also dropped the line "compassionate conservatism" -- that oldie but goodie used repeatedly by George W. Bush during his 2000 presidential campaign -- into a conversation.
On December 1 -- World AIDS Day -- the Kansas Senator showed compassion cred by appearing at Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church-sponsored conference on AIDS.
He was also featured in a New York Times Magazine piece about conservatives who have come to "embrace prison reform." A picture of Brownback, dressed in what appeared to be a prison issue plain grey sweatshirt and jeans, talking to prisoners at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, during a recent overnight visit, accompanied the story.
According to the Times' Chris Suellentrop, Brownback is one of the leading backers of the Second Chance Act, "a bill that focuses not on how to 'lock them up' but on how to let them out," Suellentrop reported. If passed, The Second Chance Act would allocate close to $100 million over two years for individual states to develop programs to assist ex-offenders as they reenter society. According to Suellentrop some 700,000 ex-offenders "will leave prison in 2007 -- and two-thirds of them are likely to be rearrested within three years."
Brownback, a strong supporter of faith-based prison programs, "seemed highly aware of the dangers, even for a conservative Republican from Kansas, of seeming the slightest bit soft on crime," Suellentrop pointed out. "I wouldn't say I represent the mainstream of this," he said. "I think we have to prove results." He continued: "I personally favor a number of these faith-based approaches. But if there are other approaches, let's try them. This is an enormous problem, and since the '70s, we have basically just said we'll lock people up."
Later, in his office in the Senate Hart Building, Brownback implicitly raised the specter of Willie Horton -- the fear that he and the other sponsors of the bill would be blamed for crimes committed by the formerly incarcerated: "Imagine you get one bad prisoner coming out and committing a heinous crime, which is likely to happen. And people's reaction is, they get mad. They don't want this guy out on the streets that's doing this. If you can't show, look, by doing these programs we are cutting the recidivism rate overall, I don't think it will stand the blowback when that situation inevitably happens."
Picking up support
According to the Associated Press, Brownback's exploratory committee is "an eclectic mix ranging from anti-abortion activists to business executives, including": Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan, former Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, and the Rev. Frank Pavone, head of the anti-abortion group Priests for Life, and Iowa investment banker Kevin McLaughlin.
"Baseball, pizza, priests -- it's more than an exploratory committee, it's a fun-packed weekend" Oval Office 2008, which describes itself as "an entirely impartial, non-partisan blog, detailing the build-up to, and progress of, the 2008 US Presidential election," wryly observed.
Tom Monaghan "is putting his money and influence" into making Brownback "the next president of the United States," McClatchy Newspapers' Matt Stearns reported."
Since unloading Dominos for nearly $1 billion in 1998, Monaghan has dedicated himself to the building of "his own utopia on 5,000 acres in southwest Florida: Ave Maria, a planned community of 11,000 homes, built around a massive church and a doctrinaire Catholic university also called Ave Maria," Stearns reported.
"Monaghan has never before been a major player on a presidential campaign," Stearns noted. "Several people familiar with Monaghan and his work said they were surprised to see him involved. In a rare interview, Monaghan told Newsweek earlier this year that 'I believe all of history is just one big battle between good and evil. I don't want to be on the sidelines.'"
The Right's Field, a blog "dedicated to providing coverage of the 2008 Republican presidential primary through news commentary, polling analysis, and research," recently pointed out that Kevin McLaughlin is "the founder" of Iowans for Discounted Taxes, "a group that supports the Steve Forbes' flat tax plan (McLaughlin worked on Forbes' presidential campaigns in 1996 and 2000)" and "has close ties to other wings" of Iowa's Republican movement. He "has frequently posted columns on the Iowa Christian Alliance's website" an organization whose "mission centers on getting people to vote on 'Christian principles,' which translates to advocacy of reducing abortion rights, banning gay marriage, and outlawing gambling."
McLaughlin is also part of Team NCPA Social Security. Founded in 1983, the NCPA (National Center for Policy Analysis) is a Dallas, Texas-based think tank -- chaired by former Delaware Governor Pete du Pont -- whose "goal is to develop and promote private alternatives to government regulation and control, solving problems by relying on the strength of the competitive, entrepreneurial private sector." Its areas of interests include "reforms in health care, taxes, Social Security, welfare, criminal justice, education and environmental regulation."
In a story dated August 7, 2006, and headlined "Mr. Compassionate Conservative: Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas considers a run for president. So why is he spending a night in prison?" The Weekly Standard's publisher Terry Eastland pointed out that Brownback "may be one of the few Republican politicians who believe that compassionate conservatism is still the ticket to the White House. National security issues are likely to remain dominant through 2008. And many conservatives are wary of compassionate conservatism, seeing it as a stimulus to government expansion and a seductive path to misguided policy. Brownback's 'compassionate' position on immigration -- he voted for the Senate bill, which would create a guest worker program and create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants -- has drawn fire from Republican colleagues in both the House and the Senate, and from publications like Human Events."
"The right side of the right's field is very crowded," The Right's Field Matt Browner Hamlin pointed out: "Brownback is trying to clear it out by staking linguistic claim to ownership of conservatism. Its smart branding and it certainly makes it harder for anti-Helmsians like Mitt Romney to make it far in this race."
Paul Weyrich, widely considered the godfather of the modern conservative movement, has his doubts about a Brownback candidacy. The Free Congress Foundation founder recently described the Kansas Senator as a "wonderful" candidate for social conservatives, but one who appears to lack "fire in the belly."
We'll know in about a year or so whether Brownback has survived Weyrich's forecast.
For more please see the Bill Berkowitz archive.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.