Calm Conservatism Lives At The Values Voter Summit

Eric Cantor, the dynamic Republican House Whip who's become a leading voice against President Obama's economic policies, stands before a crowd of around a thousand conservatives and tells them America will soon be paying a billion dollars every day in debt service, and that our "credit card company" is none other than Communist China.

The crowd gives a worried murmur: "Oooh." No one shouts.

This seems like non sequitur these days, after a summer in which crowds of angry tea partiers waved signs calling President Obama a Fascist, a Communist, a Marxist, and a Kenyan; in which the riled up and fearful screamed in the faces of their elected legislators at town hall meetings; in which Joe Wilson shouted "You lie!"; and in which a man's finger actually got bitten off (by a liberal).

But it's not. Welcome to the 2009 Values Voter Summit, hosted by the Family Research Council, one of the nation's most prominent organizations for social, religious conservatives, at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in the Washington DC's residential Woodley Park.

Mainstream conservatism still exists, despite the prominence to which the right's fringe elements have ascended since Obama took office. And sometimes it takes a mainstream conservative conference in Washington, DC to remind one that, while the infrastucture of conservative interest groups has engaged in heavy flirtation--some would say an outright love affair--with the passion of the protesters, dignified gatherings in hotel ballrooms are still its bread and butter.

Here, 48 states are represented by mostly upper-middle-aged conservatives who have flown in for the occasion, most wearing button-down shirts and khakis, a blazer here and there. Some of the women dress brightly.

The total attendance, media included, is 1,827. Many seem to have come from out of town.

"We overspent," Cantor tells the crowd. "But the Democrats make us look like Ebenezer Scrooge."

The crowd applauds firmly and politely. The same reaction for all of Cantor's applause lines, both about government spending and about conservative social values.

After his speech, I ask Cantor whether the fringes of the right need to temper their anger. I'm wondering if someone like Cantor--a conservative operator at the top of his game--thinks the concern over the right's anger, and the media attention it's getting, is hurting the conservative movement as a whole.

"We can be about civil discourse in this country--that's what this country's based upon,"
 Cantor says. "I'm struck by the Speaker's comments yesterday that somehow we've now entered a new era where there's violence in the offing. I just disagree with that. I think that we are in an age right now, and at a turning point in history where America has some tough choices to make, so people have awakened and want to be involved in that."

Cantor says this knowing--as it's pretty obvious--that the energy of the conservative protest movement has reinvigorated his party's opposition to Obama's agenda. It can't lose that momentum.

The mainstream conservatives, calmly attending a conference about the issues that are important to them, must know this as well. Right now, there's a disconnect between the anger in the streets and the mild-mannered engagement in the Omni Shoreham's Regency Ballroom. But at the upper levels of conservatism--at the level of the DC-based interest groups and the people who run them--there's a real desire to connect the two: to get their groups involved in that momentum, and to be a part of the protest movement.

Sometimes it takes a conservative conference to remember it, but conservative engagement isn't always so rowdy. Sometimes it wears khakis and plaid, reviewing handouts in a hotel ballroom. It's a pure stylistic fact that August has led many to forget.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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