The majority of New York conservatives, especially in the donor community, have always been social libertarians, and not much has changed on that front. Conservative Christian groups still support their own activities by shaking money out of lots of angry $50 donors in red states, not by reaching into the pockets of Wall Street. What has changed is that the economic agenda of Manhattan conservatives has become far more radical—so radical that many of them are willing to cede plenty of ground on social issues if they can get the other stuff they want.
The problem is that the Monday Meeting has recently hit a brick wall in terms of its influence in Washington. Though it has, to some observers, eclipsed Norquist’s meeting (now considered to be a lobbyist free-for-all), Factor hasn’t defined a clear role for his group in the coming Supreme Court battle, which, if it’s bloody, could wipe out the entire Wall Street agenda. In addition to the Social Security plan, other casualties could be legislation to give companies immunity from asbestos-related lawsuits, a seemingly obscure issue that people like Factor had pushed to the top of Congress’s to-do list; the free-trade agreement known as CAFTA; and making Bush’s tax cuts permanent. The Monday Meeting crowd has also been desperate for the big-spending president to veto an appropriations bill, but he’s less likely to flex political muscle on a veto while in the midst of a potentially unruly Supreme Court confirmation battle. Wall Street had also been making progress at getting Congress to weaken the new corporate-accountability law known as Sarbanes-Oxley, but that effort is now stalled, too. One common sight at a Monday Meeting is a Wall Street executive lecturing a Republican senator about out-of-control taxes and spending despite a decade of GOP congressional rule and four years of the Bush presidency. Bush’s reelection was supposed to be the moment when these economic heresies ended. Instead, Washington will spend the next couple of months discussing abortion, the Ten Commandments, and sodomy laws.
All this has Factor and Higgins rethinking their instincts not to get involved in the Supreme Court battle. Other factions in the corporate wing of the GOP have recently signaled a willingness to simply get behind the Christian-right leaders who will be the loudest voices in this fight and not risk splitting the party. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which usually doesn’t make Supreme Court vacancies a high priority, has been slipping White House aides dossiers assessing potential court nominees on their friendliness to business. Noting with horror the high court’s recent Kelo v. New London decision, which makes it easier for the government to seize private property, Higgins and Factor have started conversations about steering Bush toward a more economically conservative jurist. “Kelo has really galvanized believers in economic liberty in a way I have never seen any court decision do,” says Higgins. “The idea that it is a legitimate function of government to take the homes of poor homeowners by force and hand the property to wealthy developers is like something out of France under the ancien régime . . . I think Kelo made it clear that property-rights cases are not some secondary issue but should be central to the selection of judges. We have plenty of people in the Monday Meeting on each side of the abortion debate, but while we haven’t taken a poll, I suspect that at least 90 percent and maybe 100 percent would agree that Kelo was a disaster for basic American values.”
When Social Conservatives have dropped by the Monday Meeting, they have gone out of their way to bridge the obvious divide in the party. Take Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, whose strident anti-abortion views and famous reference to “man on dog” sex in an interview about gay marriage have turned him into the face of religious wingnuttery in Washington. Santorum has a tough reelection coming up next year and needs a lifeline to the New York donors, so he decided to visit the Monday Meeting to fix his cartoonish image. In front of a skeptical audience at the Hyatt, he argued that economic freedom is threatened if the traditional family breaks down, winning over many in the crowd. At a dinner afterward, two donors said they would co-host a fund-raiser for Santorum. Elizabeth Factor, who like her husband is socially liberal on most issues, told me that Santorum’s speech “was one of the most fascinating ten minutes that I have ever spent in my entire life. He is going to have to come to New York for money, and he did himself a real service.”
Having the power to force someone like Santorum to kneel before them hints at the influence of the meeting. However, politics is a zero-sum game. Santorum and other senators like him will always care way more about abortion than the capital-gains tax. To Mallory and friends, a Santorum is preferable to a Democrat, but the danger is that every Santorum they help send to Washington increases the leverage of the GOP’s social-conservative agenda at the expense of its economic one. Factor insists the Santorums of the world can do both. “If they work on the Christian-right issues, that’s fine,” he says. “We’ll solely judge them on how they do on the economic issues.”