“You’re ridiculous. You are a joke. You are a despicable human being—the lowest life form that I have ever seen. Your entire job is trying to destroy people with Alinsky tactics.”—Andrew Breitbart to Max Blumenthal at CPAC 2010
For years I have tried to approach CPAC with the seriousness that the largest gathering of the American right wing outside the Republican Party’s nominating convention deserves. This year the Conservative Political Action Conference drew 10,000 (including 6,000 students) for three days of speeches and panel discussions. I confess my admiration for American Conservative Union chairman David Keene, the sober paterfamilias who presides over an event that has grown in size and influence since it began in 1964. I have also found the conference a good gauge of where and with whom the Republican Party is heading.
This year they lost me. Ann Coulter and Andrew Breitbart’s bizarre behavior leaves no sharks to jump. And Glenn Beck’s closing-night theatrics define a political pathology that would be funny if it weren’t pernicious.
You might argue that an author, a new-media luminary, and a talk-show host shouldn’t be taken as seriously as the presidential prospects and Congressional leaders who make their obligatory appearances at the conservative gathering. You might be wrong. Coulter, Breitbart, and Beck are the sideshow. And the sideshow has become the show.
PREENING AND DEMEANING—Consider Ann Coulter. The best-selling writer (If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans; Guilty: Liberal “Victims” and Their Assault on America, etc.) was banned from the podium in 2007 after calling John Edwards a “faggot.” This year Coulter was one of three speakers to overflow a 5,000-seat hotel ballroom. She joked about Bill Clinton’s whip being surgically removed from the buttocks of Sidney Blumenthal. She advanced the right’s latest smear campaign, directed at Kevin Jennings, director of the Education Department’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. Coulter, who seems obsessed with the male rectum, got big laughs with the claim that Jennings believes “fisting” (the perverse practice of inserting a fist into someone’s anus) should be taught to fourth graders.
Jennings is under attack because he served as executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, an organization currently collaborating with the Ad Council in the public schools, and so extreme that its corporate sponsors include Citibank, PepsiCo, Goldman Sachs, and IBM. (A mid-January retraction by the right-wing advocacy group Accuracy in Media provides some idea of the tenor of the attack on Jennings: “Accuracy in Media regrets the publication of a blog entry accusing Department of Education official Kevin Jennings, a homosexual activist, of being a pedophile and personally teaching perverted sexual practices to children. We have no evidence to support those specific charges.”)
Coulter’s idea of fresh topical humor includes the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and the surgical procedure that Bill Clinton recently underwent after suffering symptoms that felt like “two interns sitting on his chest.” The procedure itself was “a stent in Clinton’s boxers.” Ann Coulter is ad hominem ad nauseam. But she’s an iconic figure at CPAC.
Andrew Breitbart is the founder of the Big Government news-aggregation Web site. He is best known for posting video clips of self-styled journalists James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles posing as a pimp and a prostitute in the offices of the community-organizing group ACORN, where they asked workers for help setting up a brothel. Some of the responses (now widely circulated) were appalling, with several ACORN employees suggesting they were willing to help. (Several were fired.)
Recently O’Keefe and three other “journalists” were arrested for posing as telephone repairmen to gain access to the New Orleans office of Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu. O’Keefe faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines for entering federal property under false pretenses, in a project that Breitbart funded.
Breitbart is a ranter. He spent much of the conference leading his film crew and packs of admiring kids through the Wardman Park Marriott, as he raged at the mainstream media. “They are disgusting!” he said of the New York Times. “The only thing they have is race and moral superiority. They’re disgusting!”
Approached by reporters he disliked, Breitbart attacked, his film crew filmed, and his admirers applauded.
In a hotel-lobby encounter with the Nation Institute’s Max Blumenthal, Breitbart was completely unhinged. Blumenthal had exposed O’Keefe in a Salon article, placing him at a white-supremacist conference and reporting that he had resigned from a conservative organization after calling Planned Parenthood offices and offering to donate money if they would agree to abort more African-American babies. (Blumenthal also reported that O’Keefe, now 25, had posted an online diary complaining about “niggers” in his Rutgers dorm and describing one roommate as an “Indian midget …who smelled like shit.”)
“You’re ridiculous,” Breitbart shouted at Blumenthal. “You are a joke. You are a despicable human being. You are the lowest life form. Explain to me what your philosophy is. …This is guilt by association, you punk. Make your case, you punk.”
After Blumenthal left, Breitbart worked the crowd and a few friendly reporters until Salon‘s Mike Madden showed up to ask a question.
“Why don’t you care about ACORN?” Breitbart screamed. “Are you insane? … Is your ideology so strong that when ACORN, in almost every office except for one, are you so insane, that they helped them create 501(c)(3)s for this underage prostitution ring where we’re going to get 14-year-old girls? It’s called sex slavery. You’re supposed to be liberal and care about this shit. You don’t care!”
Breitbart insisted that O’Keefe was guilty of nothing more than “a prank” when he entered Landrieu’s office. He accused federal authorities in New Orleans of dragging out their investigation so they can conduct a forensic examination of O’Keefe’s computer. And he told the crowd that more tapes are forthcoming and that they involve government.
And so it went. A peripatetic journalism class for aspiring right-wing reporters. Another Breitbart project encourages college “journalists” to secretly record liberal professors.
SEND IN THE CLOWNS—Fox News talk-show host Glenn Beck closed the convention with an emotionally overwrought disquisition that began with a 1937 Rhode Island Communist Party pamphlet that described the Constitution as outdated and urged voting for progressive candidates, from which Beck concluded that today’s progressives are communists conspiring to abandon constitutional government and create a socialist utopia.
If that reads like the “God is love; love is blind; Ray Charles is blind; therefore Ray Charles is God” syllogism, it might have been the most reasonable argument Beck made in his one-hour speech.
The audience followed Beck into an alternate reality in which God intervened to end the life of Warren Harding so that Calvin Coolidge could rescue the country from the depression of 1920—which was far worse than the Great Depression—and usher in the Gilded Age, an interregnum of economic stability between the two depressions, the latter caused by the progressive policies of Herbert Hoover.
I parted ways permanently with David Keene when he introduced Beck as a man who understands that Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Woodrow Wilson were the most dangerous men of the 20th Century.
These people and their annual event are newsworthy for one reason. The party whose candidates can’t win a primary without CPAC’s support is nine months from an election that might make them the majority in the House.
THEY GOT NOTHIN’—Opposition is easy. When you control nothing, you can say anything. The Republican Congressional leadership and the small pack of candidates positioning themselves for the 2012 presidential primaries have a lot to say, but very little to say about governing, which makes the prospect of their takeover of the House next year disturbing. (Their winning the Senate is less likely.)
CPAC provided three days of rapt audiences, C-SPAN coverage, and the opportunity to leverage exposure on YouTube, and the only newsmakers were the crazies. Michael Barone, an ideological journalist more thoughtful and informed than most, gently lectured the Republicans on their policy deficit. Barone said the good news is that in the 38 years he has been paid to follow politics, he has never seen the Democrats in worse shape. “The bad news,” Barone said, “is that the Republicans are not well prepared to govern.” They haven’t come up with good policy alternatives.
He’s right. Ignore the wack-jobs, such as Iowa Congressman Steve King, who described the president’s policies as socialist and his supporters as “the enemy: liberals, progressives, Castroites, socialists, Trotskyites, Leninists, and Marxists.” Any content analysis of the big speeches delivered by the big guys (and they’re all guys: Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Mike Pence, Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, et al.) reveals the policy vacuum that worries Barone.
To govern is to “cut taxes across the board,” to “reduce spending,” and to “cut outdated unnecessary regulation.” That’s it. Okay, Minnesota Governor Pawlenty began his speech with the reassuring observation that “God is in charge.” Indiana Congressman Mike Pence concluded his by saying “the Old Book also says where the spirit of the Lord is, there is hope.” So beyond cutting taxes and cutting spending, there is also religion. And the commitment to “the sanctity of all human life,” and “marriages ordained by God and instituted by law,” that comes with it.
God is great. But the focus-grouped generalities on taxing and spending put Republicans squarely at odds with economic reality. Deficits are running more than $1 trillion a year. By 2014, interest on the $12.5 trillion debt is projected at $516 billion, more than the annual appropriation for all domestic programs. Hard to see where across-the-board tax cuts address that.
And the American public isn’t inclined to give up what its government provides. Pew Research Center pollsters recently found that 2 percent of the public supports cutting Social Security; 6 percent would cut Medicare; 10 percent, other health care expenditures. The only areas where Pew found anything close to significant public support for reduced spending is at the State Department (28 percent), in the military (18 percent), and for anti-terrorism programs (17 percent).
CLEANING HOUSE—Neither economic reality, nor any reality that I could discern, was on the agenda at this conference. Yet a Republican House in January 2011 is a distinct possibility. The party that doesn’t hold the White House always has an advantage in off-year elections. Sixty-three Democratic incumbents are running in districts that John McCain carried in 2008. Republicans lead the “generic Congressional ballot” category by 1 percent or more in most polls—the second time they have led in that category since Gallup began polling it in 1950. Fivethirtyeight.com’s Nate Silver, who produced alarmingly accurate polling numbers in the 2008 elections, thinks the Democrats could lose the House—perhaps giving up more seats than they lost in the 1994 election. Charlie Cook, whose Cook Report for years has been the industry standard, has 54 Democratic and 6 Republican seats in his “reasonable chance of switching hands” column. Republicans only have to pick up 40 seats to become the majority.
If the Republicans win the House, headline writers might consider “Democratic Senate Loses Democratic House.” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi understands that Congress now operates like a parliament. Fail to deliver on critical votes and the government falls. On climate legislation, financial reform, and most importantly, health care, Pelosi delivered.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid didn’t. And Montana Democrat Max Baucus not only allowed the health care debate to drag on into the fall, he insisted upon it, giving the Democratic Congress little to show at the one-year mark. Climate legislation and the regulation of financial institutions have also stalled in the Senate. Hard to say if health care reform, which the president seems to have brought back from the dead, will be enough of a game-changer to make a difference if it passes this late in the game.
PICKING PENCE—When Newt Gingrich addressed a standing-room-only gathering at CPAC 2010, he acknowledged each presidential aspirant who had addressed the conference—Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former Governor Mitt Romney, Texas Representative Ron Paul—but omitted, by design or accident, Indiana Representative Mike Pence. Pence has been quietly running for the Republican presidential (or vice-presidential) nomination for four years.
Mike Pence is Newt Gingrich without the baggage. (Baggage that includes Gingrich informing his wife while she was hospitalized with cancer that he was filing for a divorce, carrying on an office affair with a staffer while advancing the impeachment of Bill Clinton for his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, etc.) If Pence doesn’t bristle with ideas like Gingrich does, he scores far better on right-wing character and ideological purity tests.
Pence understands that Ronald Reagan made personal narrative central to campaigning for the presidency. At CPAC, Pence began his 30-minute speech with the self-effacing observation that behind every great man is a great woman “rolling her eyes”—a setup to the line: “sitting in the front row is my wife Karen Pence, 25 years this June.”
Carefully folded into Pence’s speech was every requisite trope, including the liberal threat to limited government, mounting debt, the unraveling of our cultural fabric, the need for a strong national defense, and an end to bailouts that are not just bankrupting the country but corroding the fundamental values of the American people. Pence also addressed the sanctity of life, the moral decadence of stem-cell research, and federal funding of the largest provider of abortion in the United States: Planned Parenthood.
Pence’s lines are well-crafted: “Marriage ordained by God and instituted by law is the glue of the American family and the safest harbor to raise families in, and must be defended against the onslaught of the left.” His mastery of the dramatic sotto voce and speaker’s vibrato, and the slow nodding of his head as he laughs at the half-baked ideas of his opponents, suggests that he has carefully studied Ronald Reagan.
Tanned, with steel-gray hair, and blessed with yearbook good looks, Pence is the president from central casting.
Beyond speaking ability and image, Pence’s conservative bona fides are above reproach. He was one of 25 House Republicans to vote against George W. Bush’s unfunded Medicare prescription-drug-benefit bill. He also opposed Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” bill, which he characterized as profligate and a federal intrusion into states’ rights to make decisions regarding education.
The “Mike Pence Standing Strong” banner ads on political Web sites imply that Mike Pence is doing more than running for reelection in the 6th District in Indiana.