POLITICS SEPTEMBER 24, 2011
On June 8th, a motley coalition of conservative senators and activists huddled in the Cannon Office Building to discuss strategy around Cut, Cap, and Balance, the radical budget proposal to cap federal spending at 18 percent of GDP that they hoped to push through Congress in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. After an impassioned prayer for the nation’s future from Senator Jim DeMint, staunch libertarians like Chris Chocola of Club for Growth rubbed elbows with evangelicals like Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America and Tom McClusky of the Family Research Council. In the middle of it all, meanwhile, hashing out the details of a plan that would satisfy all parties, was an obscure figure: Colin Hanna, President of the conservative activist group Let Freedom Ring and organizer of the Cut, Cap, and Balance pledge that most of the coalition members in the room would later sign.
Even when set against the GOP’s long-standing affinity for pledges, few have been as radical or as noteworthy as the Cut, Cap, and Balance covenant that nearly derailed a deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling last month. And it owes its existence to Hanna, who, according to leaders of the coalition, helped steer messaging and broker policy divides for the impressive array of both fiscal and social conservative groups that threw their full weight behind the pledge. Hanna’s recent behind-the-scenes star turn marks an impressive leap from only six years ago, when he was finishing a stint as county commissioner for rural Chester County, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. How did this small-town pol become an important intermediary to the conservative groups most bent on cutting federal spending to the bone?
BORN ON A FARM in Chester County, Hanna worked for the Navy’s information offices during the Vietnam War and later as an account executive for CBS in New York, before returning home to assume the chairmanship of a small advertising agency. Like Senator DeMint, he attended Anglican schools and was raised Episcopalian before his adult conversion to Evangelicalism, an experience Hanna says the two of them have bonded over. “I was certainly familiar with the fundamentals of the faith, but had never really personalized my relationship with Christ until sometime in late 1970,” Hanna explained to me. In the late 80s into the early 90s, Hanna recalls catching what he terms “Potomac Fever,” regularly attending conservative meetings in D.C. like those held by Grover Norquist (he’s still one of 150 members of Norquist’s Wednesday Meetings) and the Heritage Foundation. He eventually ran for the Chester County Commission, serving for eight years and making national news as a defendant in an ACLU lawsuit to have the Ten Commandments removed from the Chester Courthouse.
But Hanna’s big break came less through Washington social climbing than by chance, when, in 2003, while waiting in line to get an autograph from Karen Santorum (wife of long-shot presidential candidate and avid pro-lifer Rick Santorum), he crossed paths with John Templeton Jr., the son and successor of eccentric, devout billionaire investor and philanthropist John Templeton. The two connected over their outrage about George Soros’s moveon.org, and Templeton agreed to seed Hanna with $1 million to start Let Freedom Ring. The organization aimed to provide a conservative counterweight to Soros’ well-funded media plays. These days, the funding behind Hanna’s advocacy group is unknown—he insisted on not revealing his current funding sources to me, having promised discretion to his handful of six-figure donors, whom the Wall Street Journal described as wealthy Christians “not wanting to be seen as political.”
Once out of office and under the banner of Let Freedom Ring, Hanna proceeded to build a career as a conservative TV man and rabble rouser with a distinctly religious underpinning. One of his early efforts was to create the Pennsylvania Pastor Network, which most notably enlisted pastors to mobilize churchgoers in support of Rick Santorum’s failed 2006 Senate re-election campaign. In his spare time, he produced religious biographies of Santorum and George W. Bush for video. It wasn’t until the rise of the Tea Party that Hanna’s Let Freedom Ring appears to have pivoted to fiscal issues. While social and fiscal conservatives had formed Republican presidential election coalitions since Ronald Reagan, their most recent alliance over the debt ceiling showcased how deeply linked the two movements have become: As Penny Nance, CEO of Concerned Women for America, explained to me, Evangelicals who’d previously restricted their zeal to issues like abortion and gay marriage have increasingly become divinely inspired to harp on the size of a government that they perceive as working against them on such issues. Hanna’s evangelical and fiscal bona fides, Nance added, made him a perfect fit to negotiate between the two sides of this movement.
As a result, when assorted conservative groups met in June with Republican Senators Jim DeMint, Marco Rubio, Gary Johnson, Pat Toomey, Tom Coburn, and Rand Paul, Hanna was asked to put together an online pledge of support. The pledge ultimately garnered the signatures of over 240,000 citizens, dozens of elected officials, and every Republican presidential candidate except Jon Huntsman.
Given the long history of radical House anti-spending initiatives and whacky conservative pledge drives, such a coalition would not normally make headlines around the world. In this case, though, the pledge that Hanna spearheaded was the centerpiece of the right’s bargaining power over Republican Party leaders like John Boehner, who had hinted at support for a sweeping deficit reduction plan that involved tax hikes. On a memorable Thursday night that some thought would augur the end of his speakership, Boehner’s debt-ceiling bill (sans Cut, Cap, and Balance provisions) failed to garner enough votes from conservative Republicans to pass the House. As the pledge master himself, Grover Norquist, put it: “You did see a lot of religious groups a part of this effort, and Hanna comes out of that coalition. … It was helpful on a whole bunch of levels.” Still, Norquist added that he didn’t think the pledge made sense overall, and so his Americans for Tax Reform conspicuously did not sign on.
Indeed, it’s worth noting that, in the end, Hanna’s Cut, Cap, and Balance coalition splintered. After passing the House, the CCB legislation was immediately tabled by Harry Reid in the Senate. In the ensuing standoff, Norquist threw his weight behind Boehner’s scaled-back plan, and so did the Chamber of Commerce. Hanna, too, ultimately supported Boehner’s less radical deal. But even then, he played a role in brokering the truce: Only with the addition of an amendment to the Boehner bill requiring a vote on a Balanced Budget Amendment before the next debt ceiling increase (an idea Hanna claims to have recommended to RSC Chair Jim Jordan), was the Boehner bill able to pass the House. That bill served as the model for the one that Obama ultimately signed in early August. Explaining his decision to back down on Cut, Cap, and Balance, Hanna shrugs: “We were right on the eve of the August 2nd deadline and it was no longer practical to have passage of a [Balanced Budget Amendment].”
But for a brief moment, Hanna’s religio-fiscal conservative coalition had reached a remarkable level of influence within the party, and they’re unlikely to forget it anytime soon. Hanna told me he has already met with House and Senate leadership to discuss strategy for making the Balanced Budget Amendment the defining issue for the coming election. He cited supercommittee member Pat Toomey and the senior senator Orrin Hatch as eager to champion the cause. Indeed, Hanna’s rise all but ensures that we can look forward to more showdowns courtesy of the deficit marauders whose influence has reached new heights, thanks in part to their divine inspiration.