Eleven thousand conservatives gathered in a Washington hotel last week to rally, strategize and audition wannabe presidential candidates. The halls at the Conservative Political Action Conference were packed with activists, radio hosts, Tea Partiers in colonial regalia—and thick with giddy disbelief. Speaker after speaker reminded the crowd that only two years ago, in the wake of Obama-mania, pundits predicted Democratic majorities as far as the eye could see. Or, as Grover Norquist, head of the Americans for Tax Reform told the audience, “It’s tough to remember two years ago, how dark it looked for liberty!”
Now the House of Representatives is theirs, control of the U.S. Senate is within reach in 2012, and the White House looks vulnerable too. They’ve made spending cuts the topic of the day. “Conservatives are excited,” conference organizer and outgoing head of the American Conservative Union, David Keene, said in an interview, adding that November’s mid-term election “represented not only a partisan victory but one of the strongest ideological victories in American history.”
But beneath the triumphalism ran an undercurrent of anxiety. “Are we going to let Washington co-opt the Tea Party?” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell asked, summing up the fear in the room. The crowd roared “No!” and the newly elected lawmakers concurred. “A lot of us freshmen don’t really have a lot of knowledge about the ways of Washington—and frankly, we don’t really care,” declared Rep. Kristi Noem, a newbie from South Dakota.
But Republicans are at a crossroads—not sure how far to the right they want to go, and who will lead them there. Freshman Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Tea Party-backed fiscal conservative whom the Republican establishment had opposed in the primary, poured a little cold water on the self-congratulation. He told the conference that congressional Republicans have so far failed to present a credible plan to achieve the balanced budget they campaigned on. While they are calling for deeper cuts to domestic spending than President Barack Obama set out in his US$3.7-trillion 2012 budget proposal on Monday, Republicans have not yet taken the politically risky step of proposing cuts to the items that make up the bulk of the federal budget: military spending and entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. “If you don’t, you are a Big Government conservative,” Rand said.
And in the Republican presidential field, the contenders seem to offer a measure of ideological purity or plausible electability, but not necessarily enough of both. Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman—and father of Rand Paul—won the conference’s presidential straw poll of activists, but is not a front-runner in the outside world. It took Donald Trump, the bombastic real estate developer and reality TV star who is flirting with a presidential run, to tell the faithful flock, to a mixed chorus of boos and cheers: “I like Ron Paul, I think he is a good guy, but honestly he just has zero chance of getting elected.” As for the seriousness of a potential Trump bid, organizer Keene dismissed him as “an entertainer,” but noted, “if you’ve got his money and his mouth, and you get up there, someone will take you seriously.”
Polls this week suggest that Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who ran a respectable campaign in 2008, is the actual front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. But he carries the burden of having passed universal health care in his state, which resembles the plan Obama passed nationally, and which Republicans have vowed to repeal. “Personally, I don’t want Romney. He’s too squishy, too moderate and wishy-washy,” said conference attendee Phil Jennerjahn, a 44-year-old actor who ran for Congress in Los Angeles. He prefers Texas Gov. Rick Perry: “He’s very tough, a straight-shooter, a cowboy. He’s a real man—our current president is a little effeminate.”
But other potential candidates, such as the governor of Indiana and former Bush budget director Mitch Daniels, made the case for welcoming more moderates into the party in order to win. “We have learned in Indiana that big change requires big majorities,” he said. “We will need people who never tune in to [conservative talk shows], who surf past C-SPAN to get to SportsCenter.” Daniels already offended some social conservatives with an earlier declaration that in order to fix the nation’s finances, “the next president would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues.”
Daniels’ pragmatic message resonated with fiscal conservatives. “The conservative movement is in limbo. One half of the party knows which direction it wants to go, and the other is not sure. At this point in time, it’s important for us to get on the same path,” said Jordan Harris, a 21-year-old Kentucky native and economics student at Pennsylvania State University who backs Daniels. “He may not be the most articulate person, but in terms of governing, he has proved himself more than others.”
Like others, Harris said he regretted the divisions within the party that threaten its momentum heading into 2012. Last month, Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, a firebrand Republican who chairs the so-called Tea Party Caucus in the House, gave a televised response to Obama’s annual State of the Union speech that was separate from the official Republican response. (She told the conservative conference: “We have to win a conservative Senate, not just a Republican Senate.”) In another display of division, some activist groups boycotted the conference when a pro-gay-rights Republican group was invited; others objected to the invitation of a Muslim group. Former George W. Bush defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, accepting a Defender of the Constitution award from former vice-president Dick Cheney, was booed by many in the crowd who oppose the cost of America’s wars. “Isolationism is a luxury America and the world cannot afford,” he responded.
Another unsettled question for conservatives is how closely to work with Obama to pass legislation. Giving him legislative victories will help his re-election—but obstruct too much and risk being seen as the “do-nothing” Congress. McConnell warned against allowing the President to claim the political centre. “We won’t let the people who spent the last two years trying to turn this country into France walk away from their record!” he said. But Harris hoped Republicans and Obama would find common ground on reforming the tax code, reducing government regulation, and passing pending trade agreements. “The American people still want us to work,” he said.
Meanwhile, Obama is looking less vulnerable than he did a few months ago. According to surveys in nine battleground states conducted by Public Policy Polling since the November election, if Obama stood for re-election today against one of the current Republican front-runners, the President would almost certainly win the same number of electoral votes he did in 2008, if not more. Obama won these swing states by an average of seven points in 2008. The polls suggest Romney trails Obama by an average of six points in same places. Other top-tier candidates trail even more: former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee by eight points, former House speaker Newt Gingrich by 12, and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin lags by 16 points. If Republicans want to beat Obama, the pollsters concluded, “They need a much stronger candidate to emerge.”
For now, conservatives have much to celebrate. The question is how long the party can last. LUIZA CH. SAVAGE