NEW ORLEANS — There was plenty of strong rhetoric coming from the stage at the Republican Leadership Conference here this weekend. From “Duck Dynasty’s” Phil Robertson to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to a succession of others, the call for a return to first principles and strict adherence to conservative convictions was loud and clear.
But there was another message as well, delivered most forcefully by former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour: a reminder to the delegates in attendance that the main purpose of a political party is to win elections in order to govern. “I hope we will not let purity be the enemy of victory,” Barbour told them.
In some years, the RLC gathering in New Orleans is a cattle call for potential presidential candidates — as it likely will be in 2015. This year, only a few of those who might run in 2016 showed up. Instead, the three-day meeting highlighted the continuing strains of a contemporary conservative movement trying to strike a balance between conviction and compromise, purity and pragmatism.
The meeting provided a variation on a theme often described in this election year as the tea party vs. the establishment. That battle is raging next-door to Louisiana in Mississippi, where longtime Sen. Thad Cochran, with strong backing from Barbour and his establishment network, is pitted against a tea party candidate, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, whose followers see the incumbent as insufficiently conservative. So far, the establishment has held the upper hand in these contests.
But alongside these direct matchups in primary contests, the struggle over the party’s future continues. It is a debate less about what the party should stand for than about how firmly it should stand — and to whom it should speak: the conservative base or a broader spectrum of the country.
Delegates here gave their heartiest applause, standing ovations, amens and huzzahs to speakers who emphasized in almost apocalyptic terms the threats they see posed to the country’s future by President Obama and his progressive allies, a liberal news media and a secular culture all trampling on the rights and liberties of ordinary Americans.
Some of the opening-night speakers pushed hard in that direction, highlighted by the appearance of Robertson. He was a successful businessman before he became a cable television star with “Duck Dynasty,” and he was a television star before he became a true conservative icon. He achieved that status after he spoke out against homosexuality in an interview with GQ magazine and was briefly suspended by the A&E Network, causing a political uproar.
“I’m not a political person,” he said as he addressed the audience wearing his customary camouflage pants. “I guess the GOP may be more desperate than I thought to call someone like me.”
Robertson delivered a stem-winder of a speech, more a sermon than a political address. Referring to the Founding Fathers, he argued that America was built not just as a religious nation but as a Christian nation. He called on Republicans to return to biblical teachings.
Relating the story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, he brought the audience to its feet when he said, “GOP, you can’t be right for America if you’re wrong with God.” Minutes later, he said, “If you want to turn around the GOP, get godly.”
He closed with a prayer in which he said: “I pray for my country, Father. We have really screwed this up.”
As Ben Sasse — the party’s nominee for Senate in Nebraska and someone with strong tea party support — put it as he stepped to the microphone after Robertson’s speech, “That is a tough act to follow.”
Robertson wasn’t the only one to stir the faithful. On Saturday, Cruz repeatedly lit up the audience with his call to defend the Constitution and said a grass-roots movement is rising to take back America. “We are winning these fights over and over,” he said.
Cruz was criticized last fall after a marathon speech on the Senate floor against Obamacare helped lead to the partial government shutdown. Cruz said Saturday that the speech helped awaken the country and that Republicans will reap the benefits this fall by retaking the Senate.
On opening night, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal railed against the Obama administration’s policies and exclaimed, “There’s a rebellion brewing. . . . We’ve had it.” On Friday, the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins said, “There will be no constitutional government unless we remain proudly a moral and a religious people. We must not be arrogant, but we must refuse to be intimidated.”
Former congressman Allen West also vowed that there would be no compromises and won a standing ovation. “No one asked liberal progressives to compromise their positions,” he said. “So why must we acquiesce and compromise ours?”
By comparison, Barbour’s address roused far fewer in the audience. He said he spoke less as a former governor than as a former party chairman. His message was not new, but it was one that he believed the audience needed to hear at this moment in the party’s history.
In an interview before he spoke, Barbour said the rise of the tea party has brought many new people into active political involvement — conservative citizens alarmed by the president’s policies. “Obama scared them enough to get them up off the sofa,” he said.
Many of those newly active conservatives remain deeply concerned about the direction of the country. They believe traditional values are under assault. Barbour said he understood why many have demanded that elected officials resist any calls for compromise. “They’ve never been involved before,” he said in the interview. “Purity is attractive.”
Barbour discounted the proposition that the Republican Party is riven by ideological warfare. He said he believes that the average tea party Republican “agrees 95 percent of the time on policy” with establishment or regular Republicans. “The issue that has caused separation is not policy, it’s tactics,” he said.
But those differences were enough to cause Barbour to use his time in New Orleans to try to encourage hard-liners to think about what winning elections requires. In a two-party system, he said, political parties are big and diverse coalitions. To win, they must appeal broadly — far different, he said, than finding success in the niche world of cable television.
“With an 8 percent market share on television, you can make $300 million a year,” he said. “In our business, any market share under 50 percent, you’re a loser.”
Barbour reminded the audience that in 1972 and 1984, Republican presidential nominees won roughly 60 percent of the national vote. “We need to manage our party,” he said, “in a way that all 60 percent of those people feel welcome.”
The question for Republicans contemplating a presidential run in 2016: How vigorously can they compete for the support of the conservative activists at the grass roots without sacrificing the party’s appeal to the larger and more diverse electorate that Barbour described?