THE CONSERVATIVE POLITICAL ACTION CONFERENCE (CPAC) has always been a Republican Party Brigadoon. The annual three-day winter gathering transforms Washington’s Omni Shoreham Hotel into a place where the federal government is plotting to take away citizens’ guns; the liberal elite is planning to take away citizens’ economic and religious freedom; taxes are too high, defense expenditures too low; and everyone watches Fox News and reads the Washington Times.
Ronald Reagan put CPAC on the map in 1975—the year after the Watergate election—when he told conservatives to raise “a banner of no pale pastels but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all the issues troubling the people.” American Conservative Union chairman David Keene, the paterfamilias of the annual conference, told me that the energy and vitality this year recalled Reagan’s “bold colors” moment.
“When conservatives lose, conservatives get mad and get more active,” Keene said.
This was not the first angry CPAC gathering.
Last year, Mitt Romney used the event to announce that he was withdrawing from the Republican presidential primary. His speech sucked the oxygen out of a packed ballroom, leaving young Romney supporters—wearing huge foam Mitt mitts—stunned and in tears. Romney hadn’t informed Senator John McCain (R-AZ) that he was pulling out. So when he spoke, just hours before McCain was scheduled to address the conference, he turned a crowd that was already lukewarm toward the Arizona senator into an angry mob in folding chairs.
Romney was back at the 2009 conference, running what looked like a fully staffed presidential campaign, while John McCain was nowhere to be seen.
Also missing were the motorcycles, lines of police cars, and black SUVs with tinted windows. No elected official in the Republican Party requires that level of security.
Out of office for just over a month, George W. Bush was subjected to what amounted to a public exorcism. Speakers were relentless in their attacks on the president, whose muscular foreign policy was celebrated from the same podium in years past.
Here was Bush’s United Nations Ambassador, John Bolton, looking like he just checked out of an anger management clinic, and throwing Bush under the bus. “I think we’re better off in some sense not having the Bush administration to defend any more in many respects,” Bolton said to enthusiastic applause. “Too many people identified the Bush administration as being conservative, and as we know that was a long way from being accurate.”
Cliff Kincaid, from the right-wing advocacy group Accuracy in Media, referred to the “pseudo-socialist” policies of the president from Texas.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee said that the public had come to view the Bush administration as “one giant henhouse guarded by the foxes,” and that the 2006 election was lost because Americans were “disgusted by seeing their fellow citizens hopelessly clinging to rooftops.” Lenin and Stalin, Huckabee said, would have loved Bush and Paulson’s bank bailout plan.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich described a Bush-Obama spending program that was bipartisan in nature, which by Gingrich’s math surpassed $5 trillion before Obama took the oath of office. (His figure included Federal Reserve loans.)
Ron Paul said that Bush’s foreign policy had bankrupted the country and played into the hands of Osama bin Laden.
Conservative columnist Deroy Murdock accused Bush of advancing American socialism as far as third base and urged Bush strategist Karl Rove—the “Antichrist of strategy”—to “clam up, fly back to Texas, curl up beside a cactus, and contemplate how he wrecked our movement.”
In three days, movement Republicans laid George W. Bush to rest.
THE NEXT BIG THING?—As bizarre as it seems, the Republican 2012 primary began at CPAC. A Mitt Romney staffer provided reporters with advance copies of Romney’s speech. Students carrying Mike Huckabee campaign signs caucused outside the ballroom before the former Arkansas governor addressed the conference. Ron Paul supporters swarmed the same ballroom in a huge bum’s rush just before the Texas Congressman took the stage.
Nothing, however, compared to Newt Gingrich.
While the other “candidates” approached the podium from one of the wings, Gingrich did so through the double doors at the back of the ballroom. His one-man procession was a weird recapitulation of President Obama’s walk down the center aisle of the House chamber a week earlier, although the House stereo system wasn’t booming Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” Gingrich slapped backs, shook hands, nodded and pointed to supporters he couldn’t physically touch, and posed for photos in a three-minute staged entrance.
Then for forty-nine minutes, he ripped into the Obama administration and offered his own alternative to the European socialism that Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid are imposing on the country.
But there’s not much in that alternative model that hasn’t already been tried by Bush or rejected by the voters:
- a reduction of the capital gains to the Chinese rate (0 percent);
- cutting the corporate tax to Ireland’s rate (12.5 percent);
- reducing government regulation;
- a 50 percent offset on FICA and the Medicare tax;
- an end to the inheritance tax;
- keeping organized labor in check so it doesn’t stifle entrepreneurial creativity or suffocate individual freedom.
Gingrich was also flogging a book (that is not yet released) and promoting his new Ronald Reagan documentary, which was screened after his talk. He continues to be a gifted, if histrionic, speaker, capable of weaving the most sanguinary and heroic moments of American history into a public-policy tapestry. (He told a story of his coauthor wrapping his feet in burlap in December to re-enact Washington’s crossing of the Delaware.)
Yet Gingrich’s policy proposals are as dated as the rock tune to which he entered the hall. As were those of Romney and Huckabee, even if Congressman Paul’s promise to return the nation to the “only currency the founders ever envisioned, gold and silver” is timeless. A party that got waxed in the last election and that is in desperate need of new leaders and new ideas is serving old whine in old bottles.
The only new face in the race, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, declined CPAC’s invitation. Which turned out to be a good move, considering his catastrophic attempt to respond to Barack Obama’s budget speech the week before—and the subsequent revelation that the story Jindal told about his Hurricane Katrina moment in the company of a legendary Louisiana sheriff was fabricated. Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was tentatively scheduled to speak, but canceled.
Romney won the presidential straw poll with 20 percent, Jindal followed with 14 percent, and Paul and Palin tied for third place with 13 percent each. Gingrich trailed, but won the day, and for the moment, the mantle of Ronald Reagan. For what it’s worth.
On the Sunday after the American Conservative Union’s D.C. event, the New York Times reported on broad-based, longitudinal polling that places today’s Republicans at Gettysburg defending the South, rather than at Trenton. For the first time since Nixon’s Southern Strategy turned Dixie red, Republicans are losing the South—states they’ve dominated—where Democrats are up by 3 percent.
Of greatest concern is the departure of “millennial” voters between the ages of 18 and 29, where Democratic Party identification is up 14 percent. Women, whose Democratic Party identification is up by 18 percent this year, are already lost.
LE BON TEMPS ROULE—Half of the 8,500 or more people in attendance at this year’s CPAC event were students. They come from all over the country, many giving over their spring break to the conservative cause. I interviewed about thirty of them, some individually, others in twos or threes—an admittedly unscientific survey. I asked them what institutional hooks got them to the conference, what issues animated them, and what big take-away ideas they found there.
Everyone I talked to came from a small college. Not Penn, Harvard, Yale, or even Georgetown; this was a Colgate, Clarion, Cornell, the Citadel, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Albright College, Pepperdine crowd. Most students also belonged to a campus Republican organization.
The young CPACers were focused on issues more than policy: smaller government, respect for the sanctity of the lives of the unborn, lower taxes, traditional values, free markets, excessive government regulation, more money for the military, less spending on welfare, the abolition of the income tax. Only the Ron Paul disciples were concerned about the minutiae of policy—the Federal Reserve and why it should be dismantled, the need to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and end the income tax, and the urgent necessity of returning the nation to a currency backed by precious metals.
No one articulated any big idea or policy associated with the three-day conference. With the exception of two or three who refused to speak to a reporter, they were easily engaged, open, and earnest. The women were stylishly dressed; most wore high heels. Most of the men wore suits and ties, or at least sports coats, ties, and dress slacks. And bow ties. More bow ties than I have ever seen on men in their twenties.
I asked three women standing outside Radio Row—the broadcast studios underwritten by the American Petroleum Institute—what motivated them to drive down from Hamilton, New York, almost 400 miles north of Washington, D.C.
“Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. And Newt,” one of the women said. The others agreed. “I love Ann Coulter,” said the youngest member of the Colgate contingent. Among the college students I spoke to, Limbaugh and Coulter were the big draw.
Limbaugh, of course, is the nation’s most prominent right-wing radio host. His 90-minute chest-pounding gesticulating rant—in a packed auditorium—was so bizarre and manneristic that it overshadowed his content: “I hope Barack Obama fails.”
Coulter is a columnist, author, and media personality whose signature mark is invective and ad hominem slurs (in her most recent book she calls Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy a “drunken slob”). Coulter is back after being dropped from the speakers’ program last year, presumably in response to calling John Edwards “a faggot” at CPAC in 2007, or maybe for describing Arabs as “ragheads” in 2006.
Coulter was introduced by former House Majority Leader, Tom DeLay, who although a member of the American Conservative Union’s board, doesn’t get a speaking role here anymore. DeLay is almost as toxic as Bush and Rove, in this crowd, which doesn’t stop him from endlessly trolling for interviews. He did, however, tell me: “I don’t talk to you; you are a slimeball; you write shit.” From which I infer that he didn’t care for the book I wrote about him before he was indicted and left the Congress.
Like George W. Bush, Gustave Le Bon didn’t make it to CPAC. The fin de siècle French social scientist’s work has long since been discredited. (His theory of racial superiority is even ignored by Francophile American nativists like Lou Dobbs.) Yet Le Bon’s writing about crowd behavior and the group mind was vividly alive at CPAC 2009. Squeezed into an auditorium and fired up by Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich, or the NRA’s rabid Wayne LaPierre, the bright and amiable kids I interviewed were transformed into a fist-pumping, jeering mob, on their feet and booing at the mention of Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Barney Frank or Hillary Clinton. There was even scattered applause when Texas Congressman Ron Paul mentioned the death of one million Iraqis—until it was evident that Paul’s comments were part of his criticism of the war in Iraq.
The students’ public conduct is informed by the sneering adult leadership of the Republican Party—Gingrich, Coulter and Limbaugh, in particular. Even their guttural chant—USA! USA! USA! USA!—seems more angry than patriotic.
Lectures from bilious old white men. Speeches by castoffs such as Rick Santorum and George Allen. A dated sound track (“We Will Rock You” and the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer”). Ayn Rand economic theory. “Joe the Plumber” selling books and making speeches.
The kids are all right. They deserve better.
RAYTHEON PENTAGON—”I do not view the fact that Mr. Lynn became a lobbyist for Raytheon as, per se, disqualifying,” said Senator John McCain. McCain was one of ninety-three Senators who voted to confirm William J. Lynn, the defense industry lobbyist President Obama appointed to the number-two position at the Defense Department. McCain cited Lynn’s willingness to comply with federal ethics requirements and his promise to divest himself of his Raytheon holdings. That was good enough? Sell the stock and attend to ethics? Hadn’t Barack Obama ripped McCain for hiring lobbyists to run his presidential campaign; then declared that lobbyists would not find work in an Obama administration—particularly in positions from which they might make decisions that would serve the interests of their former clients?
Lynn admittedly has a rare skill set: he handled the military portfolio in Senator Ted Kennedy’s (D-MA) office and moved on to two critical staff positions at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration. But following that, there were six years during which he represented one of the nation’s largest defense contractors. Defense contractors who sell their hardware to what the Government Accountability Office has described as the most inefficiently managed federal department—which each year spends more than $600 billion. Four Senators voted no on Lynn’s confirmation: Tom Coburn (R-OK), John Cornyn (R-TX), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill. Grassley documented Lynn’s lax behavior as comptroller at the Pentagon.
McCaskill was driving the Straight Talk Express. The first-term Senator was bucking the president and Senate leadership when she confronted Lynn at his confirmation hearing: “I don’t mean by directing this question to in any way impugn your integrity, but the revolving door is an important issue for us to talk about, between the Pentagon and the defense community. You went directly from the Pentagon to a defense contractor. You are coming back directly from a defense contractor, a major—one of the largest defense contractors—into the Department of Defense. And in that role, you have a major responsibility over acquisition procurement.” McCaskill was the only Senate Democrat supporting the Democratic president’s evolving revolving-door ethics standard.