Vermont conservatives try to take back momentum at FreedomFest 2005
Most public speakers tote a can of soda or a bottle of water to the podium, but for his 9:30 a.m. address at "FreedomFest," John McClaughry brings a bottle of beer.
And who could blame him? The silver-haired 68-year-old is president of the Ethan Allen Institute -- a Vermont free-market think tank. He's addressing a group of roughly 100 mostly conservative activists, gathered in Judd Gym at Vermont Technical College in Randolph. This in a state where the former governor is the outspoken chair of the Democratic National Committee, the lone Independent Congressman is poised to become Vermont's second Independent U.S. Senator, and the culture is synonymous with civil unions and an ice-cream company founded by hippies. Yep, the folks in this room are in the minority and they know it. Just being in what McClaughry calls "a perfect little socialist state" seems enough to drive a right-wing crusader to drink.
But McClaughry doesn't sip from his beer, a Sam Adams; he uses it as a prop. The erudite activist from Kirby holds the bottle aloft before reciting one of his favorite Sam Adams quotes. The outspoken brewer was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and helped organize the Boston Tea Party. McClaughry admires him greatly. "It does not require a majority to prevail," he intones hopefully, "but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds."
McClaughry is hoping he can convince a few more people to pick up some matches. He orchestrated this daylong conference to recruit and train activists to "do battle" against Vermont's surfeit of left-wing advocacy groups. In his kick-off speech, he mentions the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, the National Education Association, the Progressive Party and the Peace and Justice Center, among others. VPIRG alone has 10,000 members and more than 23,000 financial contributors; membership in the Ethan Allen Institute hovers around 600.
McClaughry has invited a dozen or so conservative and libertarian groups to present information at tables and in workshops at the FreedomFest event. And he's booked an impressive keynote speaker -- Wall Street Journal editorial writer and Arnold Schwarzenegger economic advisor Stephen Moore, who founded the Club for Growth. Readers unfamiliar with his arm of the fabled "vast right-wing conspiracy" need to know that in the last election cycle, Moore's group spent $22 million trying to unseat moderate Republicans, or so-called RINOs (Republicans in Name Only).
The Club also goes after Democrats -- it produced a much-publicized anti-Dean ad before the Iowa caucus featuring a couple who advised the presidential candidate to "take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs."
McClaughry is hoping Moore's speech -- and three morning policy sessions -- will inspire his mostly over-40 troops to stick around for three hours of strategy and communication training in the afternoon, followed by a reception with Governor Jim Douglas, Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie and Senate candidate Richard Tarrant.
Ultimately, McClaughry's goal is to unite this fractious collection of special-interest groups into a vibrant, anti-liberal movement. Even he isn't sure it can be done. But he's convinced that trying is vital. "Our side has never been able to get its act together," he laments. "If we don't get our act together, we will lose everything we love about Vermont."
The FreedomFest gathering represents a new tactic for McClaughry, but he's been fighting the battle for more than 40 years. He moved to Vermont from Illinois in 1963, a year after Phil Hoff became the state's first Democratic governor, and has been active in Vermont politics ever since. He's been town moderator in Kirby for 32 years, and served as a Republican state representative and a state senator. He ran for governor in 1992, losing to Howard Dean. These days, McClaughry is best known for his work at the EAI, which is headquartered at his home. He also writes a syndicated biweekly column and contributes commentaries to Vermont Public Radio.
McClaughry pegs 1962, the year before he arrived in Vermont, as the beginning of the state's cultural decline. He reviews the history one afternoon before FreedomFest, during an interview at his log-cabin retreat. Autumnal reds and golds dot the hillsides surrounding his house. McClaughry sits in a creaky leather armchair in his spacious living room. Cluster flies smack into the window intermittently as he talks. Occasionally, they fall to the floor and die.
He recalls how the influx of professionals, antiwar activists, environmentalists and "college professors and their spouses" overwhelmed the Republican farmers who had run the state for more than a century. Now, McClaughry says, "It's always more regulation, higher taxes, more spending, more controls, more mandates . . . I don't want to be alarmist about it, but if the left had its way -- if you take a dozen key proposals of the left of the past 20 years, and add 'em all up and put 'em in place, you've got pretty close to certainly a socialist state."
McClaughry cites various anti-liberal uprisings from the past four decades -- over the land-use plan of the 1970s, the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1980s, and civil unions in 2000 -- but he notes that each time, once the immediate issue faded, the coalitions did, too. He's given the problem a lot of thought -- not surprising, since he runs a think tank.
His latest attempt to create a "resistance movement" involves an advocacy group called FreedomWorks Vermont. That's a local chapter of a national organization founded by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey and C. Boyden Gray, former White House Counsel to the first President Bush. FreedomWorks has established chapters in 27 states to fight for such things as Social Security reform and the abolition of the estate tax -- or the "death tax," as they call it.
Some political observers scratched their heads when the group arrived in Vermont last March. Why target this "blue paradise" -- another of McClaughry's colorful terms -- instead of a swing state? The answer is that McClaughry brought them here.
"I don't like to organize," he explains. "It's not my style. I'm philosophically oriented. I'd rather sit up here and crank things out on the computer and read than scurry around and go to meetings and fire people up." So McClaughry convinced organizers to hire a FreedomWorks director -- former ad man Rob Roper -- and he helped raise the money to pay him. Now FreedomWorks is essentially the 501(c)4 lobbying and activist arm of the EAI. The group co-sponsored FreedomFest with the Institute.
But just bringing FreedomWorks to Vermont won't solve McClaughry's problems. Another question he ponders regularly is, who should be on his team for the fight? The question is more difficult to answer than most liberal Vermonters realize.
For starters, McClaughry himself bristles when called conservative. "I'm a Jeffersonian," he says, "though nobody knows what that means anymore."
When Jefferson was elected president, he continues, "he canceled half of our foreign embassies, eliminated all of the internal taxation, gutted the size of the federal government, started paying off the federal debt . . . things that would appall the modern liberal."
"But," he adds, "Jefferson was not a conservative because he had this great faith in people and democracy. Conservatives are skeptical."
McClaughry is more of a libertarian than a conservative. "I believe in freedom," he says, "and people making their own choices."
So how does that fit with groups such as Vermont Right to Life and Vermont Cultural Renewal, which oppose abortion and homosexuality? McClaughry concedes that those aren't his issues, but he feels fine about making common cause with those groups, because their members tend to support gun rights and property rights, too.
But the divide between the libertarians and the social conservatives is on display immediately after McClaughry's speech at FreedomFest. When he finishes, representatives from the various groups approach the podium to give a broad overview of their issues. The first three speakers are social conservatives -- Steve Cable from "pro-family" group Vermont Renewal, Craig Bensen from the anti-civil-union Take It to the People, and Eileen Haupt from the Vermont Right to Life Committee.
These three speakers represent an agenda that only a verbal contortionist could construe as promoting "freedom." Even the title of their policy workshop -- "Cultural Renewal" -- sounds like something out of the Maoist playbook. Vermont Renewal, for example, has at its table a book called Reality Matters: Gays and Lesbians, co-authored by Cable himself. In it, he writes, "The very nature of homosexuality makes it abnormal, unhealthy and dangerous." Gay libertarians presumably aren't welcome.
Talking about the fight to prevent gay marriage, Bensen smiles at the audience and says, "We trust if we do have to raise the issue again, you'll be there."
Haupt brings up parental notification for minors seeking an abortion and, more interestingly, opposition to physician-assisted suicide. The right-to-die movement is often championed by libertarians, after all. Haupt says the Vermont Legislature will likely take up a physician-assisted-suicide bill this session. "I urge independent-minded people who might support this to pay attention," she says, her voice trembling slightly.
On the contrary, the fourth speaker, Scott Berkey, vice chair of the Vermont Libertarian Party, promptly emphasizes -- perhaps a touch indignantly -- that his organization works to protect liberty "from the boardroom to the bedroom."
After him come speakers from the Vermont GOP, the libertarian Free State Project -- encouraging everyone to move to New Hampshire to make that state libertarian -- and the Center for Property Rights. Not all of them want to make friends. Ed Cutler, of Gun Owners of Vermont, invites his audience to join him if they support the Second Amendment. Otherwise, he warns, "Get out of our way."
During lunch, one thirtysomething conference participant privately reveals that he questions how committed everyone here is to all these issues, especially the fight against physician-assisted suicide. "I wonder how many people in this room, if you have them in a private conversation, would say they just don't care?" he asks rhetorically.
Despite the presence of social conservatives at FreedomFest, fiscal issues are the real focus. The first "Cultural Renewal" workshop has only four participants, while a session on health-care reform draws five times that many.
And the afternoon's keynote speaker has nothing whatsoever to do with social issues. Stephen Moore is a guy McClaughry would have no problem claiming for his side. He talks only of lowering taxes, downsizing government, and booting from office Democrats and Republicans who refuse to do either.
He begins with a rant about the government's reaction to Hurricane Katrina and a plea for privatization of recovery efforts. He says he's frustrated by Democrats and Republicans who argue that giving an inept government more funding is the solution. "Where's the logic in that?" he asks.
Moore continues with an attack on pork projects attached to the recent federal highway bill. "When I worked for Reagan," he says, "the Congress passed a highway bill that had 187 special-interest earmarked projects. These are things -- bicycle paths and natural trails and automobile museums -- that have no place in a highway bill." Reagan vetoed it, he notes.
"Does anybody want to take a guess at how many special interest projects there were in the highway bill George Bush just signed into law two months ago? 6187," he says breathlessly. "There were 16 slabs of bacon for every single Congressman in that bill."
That includes Bernie Sanders, who secured more than $1 billion for road improvements in Vermont. In a press release last month, the Congressman argued that instead of paying for hurricane-recovery efforts by cutting government programs -- such as prescription-drug benefits, farm aid and funding for public radio -- conservatives should stop trying to repeal the estate tax. He pointed out that the tax affects only the wealthiest 2 percent of taxpayers, with half the benefits going to the wealthiest .1 percent of families.
In his speech, Moore states that repeal of the estate tax is one of the issues nearest and dearest to his heart. He calls it "one of the most obnoxious, anti-growth, anti-American taxes." And he warns that voters should avoid penalizing the wealthy. "You chase rich people away, they're not going to be there to pay taxes," he cautions. "I think that's something that you all have to worry about in Vermont."
Moore also favors a flat tax that would eliminate complicated tax forms all together, and assess everyone at just 19 percent. When he asks the audience how many favor a flat tax -- which first drew national attention when Steve Forbes campaigned on it in 1992 -- more than half raise their hands.
But the flat tax is still a fringe concept among ordinary Vermonters, who have yet to embrace Moore's growth mentality. After his speech, Freedom- Works Vermont Director Rob Roper gives the remaining participants some pointers on how to persuade nonbelievers. He says conservatives in Vermont have an image problem. "When they find out you're a conservative, when they see that 'R' next to your name, they see the fangs, they see the teeth," he says. "They don't have to see the horns to know they're under your hat. We have to fight hard to counter that."
Roper's bottom line? Understand your listener. "Think before you speak," he counsels. He offers an analogy: If you want your wife to let you go to Vegas, first take her out and ask her over dinner, and remind her of your recent raise. He distributes a handout called "Communication Strategies & the Art of Persuasion," which includes a worksheet for his "six-box strategy."
Roper also offers some encouragement, in the form of a story about the Volkswagen Bug. He recalls that when an American ad agency was first assigned to the Bug in 1953, they were charged with selling Hitler's favorite car to a country that had just fought World War II. And look how that turned out. What you have to do, says Roper, is be like the Bug -- be likable. "Be strong, be smart and be nice," he says.
Some groups are better at taking that advice than others. Guy Page, of Caring Vermont Parents, seems to have it down. He's leading an effort for a parental-notification law, trying to get a ballot question before 40 to 50 towns next spring. That's the same tactic antiwar activists used to oppose the Iraq war last March.
Parental notification is typically seen as a pro-life position, but not when Page presents it. "This is not pro-life, this is not pro-choice," he says. "This is pro-parent."
And then there are the in-your-face activists, such as Texan Brendan Steinhauser, the national grassroots manager for FreedomWorks. Granted, he hasn't spent much time in Vermont. At 24, he's the youngest person in the room, not counting a baby in the back of the gym. In his presentation, Steinhauser exhorts the audience to be vocal and proud to be conservative. His self-published book, The Conservative Revolution: How to Win the Battle for College Campuses, is for sale at the FreedomWorks table. In it, he writes about his exploits protesting abortion clinics, "femi-nazi rallies" and gay student resource centers on campus.
When Steinhauser hears about the Colchester teachers' strike, he offers some advice: "If I was there, I would be out protesting, holding a sign that says, 'Honk if you think teachers should go back to work.'" That hardly sounds nice. Or likable.
Though McClaughry appears confident and optimistic in his FreedomFest address, he admits privately that he's not sure he can actually create a successful anti-liberal movement. "Will this all work?" he wonders, during the interview at his house. "I don't know. There's not a lot of reason to believe it will."
But he'll pursue it regardless, he says. "Every system of government that takes the resources away from people, hands it out to other people, suppresses initiative by regulation and bureaucracy -- no matter how well-intentioned -- essentially destroys the human spirit, and with it, human progress," McClaughry says. "So I fight it."
The left-wing organizations he's calling out have yet to be stung by his criticism. Chris Meehan, executive director of the 1600-member Peace & Justice Center, hadn't heard that the right wing was gathered for training. Her organization sponsors a livable-wage campaign, racial-justice training that fights racial profiling, and an effort to counter military recruiting in schools. P&J recently organized three busses of Vermonters who traveled to an antiwar march in Washington, D.C. "I guess we're doing a good job if we're one of the groups they're targeting," Meehan says.
Paul Burns, executive director of VPIRG, laughs heartily when told that a right-wing group is criticizing his organization. "I had no idea. I'm embarrassed to say that I was blissfully unaware that VPIRG was [FreedomWorks'] arch enemy."
Burns has never met McClaughry, though he's spoken with him over the phone. He praises the Jeffersonian as "perfectly pleasant," and says he doesn't really feel threatened by his efforts.
Burns is confident that Vermonters won't be swayed by McClaughry's rhetoric. His prediction? "We will continue to enjoy the broad support of most Vermonters." And, he adds, conservatives "will continue to have a small but zealous band of merry supporters themselves."