The Duck Dynasty guy epitomizes this weekend’s Republican Leadership Conference


Phil Robertson in A&E's 'Duck Dynasty' (A&E photo by Karolina Wojtasik)

NEW ORLEANS -- Republicans will gather here over the next three days for one of the bigger presidential cattle calls in advance of the soon-to-begin 2016 campaign: The Republican Leadership Conference.

But the crew of speakers who will take the stage at the confab -- formerly known as the Southern Republican Leadership Conference -- is notably devoid of many of the top 2016 GOP contenders, including Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and even Southerners like Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul (who is known for his prolific travel and speech-giving schedule).

What this year's RLC has instead? Controversial conservatives.

The speakers list reads like a who's who of conservatives who have found themselves on the wrong side of a scandal or who have otherwise seen their 15 minutes of political fame extend much longer than 15 minutes.

There's Donald Trump (because, of course) who has made a name for himself by leading the charge of the so-called "birther" movement and flirting with presidential runs. As recently as Tuesday, Trump continued to suggest Obama hasn't been honest about his birthplace.

There's also failed 2012 GOP presidential candidates Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann, who have both seen their political careers succumb to allegations of wrongdoing. Cain's alleged affairs knocked him out of the 2012 presidential campaign, and Bachmann is retiring from Congress amid allegations of campaign finance violations.

There's Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), whose 2012 presidential campaign imploded like none other but is still looking at running in 2016.

There's Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), whose 2007 admission to patronizing a D.C. prostitution ring is now something of a distant memory; he's the frontrunner for governor in this state next year.

There are Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), who are among the most outspoken and often controversial Republican members of Congress. The same goes for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), the leader of the effort that led to the government being shut down for more than two weeks last year.

There's conservative filmmaker Dinesh D'Souza, who just last week pleaded guilty to knowingly using straw donors to make illegal campaign contributions to a Senate candidate. D'Souza faces 10 to 16 months in prison. Conservatives have alleged the Obama Administration has targeted him for his views.

And then there was the late addition, Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson, whose entree into national politics came when he remarked recently that the pre-civil rights era wasn't so bad for African Americans and suggested that homosexuality could lead to bestiality and other things. He was suspended from his A&E TV show but later reinstated after conservative activists cried foul.

Robertson's show is a favorite of conservatives, to  be sure, and his family has been active in Louisiana GOP circles. But would he have been invited without the controversy?

Indeed, Robertson is a pretty good example of what this year's RLC is all about.

These kinds of things have hardly disqualified conservatives from carving out large followings in today's Republican Party. And as the Daily Caller's Matt Lewis noted after the whole Cliven Bundy flap, they have often led the conservative wing of the party to rally around these folks:

First, as I’ve long lamented, there is a pattern of conservatives embracing someone who is being bullied by the government or the mainstream media, and turning them into some sort of folk hero. But this “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” philosophy is dangerous.

Just because someone is being victimized does not bestow upon them the quality of virtue. What is more, the fact that someone is standing up to our political enemies (think Donald Trump, Ted Nugent, et al.,) does not, in and of itself, make them a worthy or honorable partner.

Yet, we find conservatives trapped in a cycle of abusive relationships. It’s almost like a trap.

The docket also has its legitimate 2016 presidential contenders -- Cruz, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) most notable among them -- and its party stalwarts like RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour (R) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R).

But it's clear from the outset that the 2014 RLC will contain a healthy dose of the Phil Robertsons and the Donald Trumps and relatively little in the way of a preview of the 2016 GOP primary.

The action begins at 6 p.m. central, 7 p.m. eastern on Thursday night. Here's the full list of speakers.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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