Over the last eight years, a ritual part of the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual pilgrimage that draws more than 1,800 Republican activists, politicians, and presidential hopefuls to a luxury hotel in Washington, was to applaud members of the administration of George W. Bush. Just a year ago, Bush stood at the CPAC podium, touting his economic and security policies, and was interrupted by frequent applause, on-cue laughter, and shouts of “I love you George.”
What a difference one year, one election, and one financial cataclysm make. Last weekend at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, there was enough Bush-bashing in the halls and at the podiums to feed a convention of hungry liberal bloggers. The “liberal” John McCain was a target, too. And weak-kneed “Washington Republicans” and their complicity in big government spending. And conservative columnists who aren’t sufficiently conservative. And Barack Obama and his “socialist” policies and the mainstream media that loves him—especially the mainstream media. Move over, Mr. President: you may be the biggest celebrity in the world, but when it comes to the fireworks exploding these days in the belly of the Republican party, you’re just a sideshow. And it’s a party that’s divided, adrift—and on the lookout for that messiah who can unite conservatives at odds with one another.
“We are fast becoming a regional party, instead of a national one, and there is a name for a regional party—it’s called the minority party,” Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell told the gathering. He noted the absence of even one senator from the West Coast—and that none of the New England states sent a single Republican to the House. McConnell added that one “can walk from Canada to Mexico, and from Montana to Maine, without ever leaving a state in this country that has a Democratic governor.”
There were speeches by potential candidates testing the waters for the 2012 nomination, workshops on TV training and public speaking, and discussions of how to wring political advantage out of this thing called Twitter. There were panels with titles like “Bailing Out Big Business: Are We All Socialists Now?” and “Media in the Obama Era: Is Journalism Dead?” Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher was a featured speaker and received a star welcome. There were movies about Ronald Reagan, missile threats, and one on how Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential bid was destroyed by the liberal press.
But most of all, there was a lot of venting and soul-searching by the party that has lost control of both houses of Congress, the White House—and the national agenda. And a surprising amount of self-flagellation.
According to Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who led the Republican uprising against Bill Clinton, “Tragically in the last few years the Republican party became the right wing of the party of big government and political elites. And that is why there is a Bush-Obama continuity in economic policy, which is frankly a disaster for this country and cannot work.”
“I think we’re better off not having the Bush administration to defend,” said John Bolton, Bush’s one-time ambassador to the United Nations, after a speech in which he criticized both Bush and Obama for not standing up to Iran militarily. “Too many people identified the Bush administration with conservatism, and we know that was very far from the case.”
But the divisions that plagued the party during the primaries, and carved up the voter base so that John McCain became the presidential nominee by default, were still on display. Sometimes it got personal. Commentator Michelle Malkin beamed in on a video screen to lay into the populist thread of politicians such as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who sewed up the social conservative vote in the GOP primaries and may take another run. “I do not see Mike Huckabee as a unifying figure,” Malkin said. “I remember his sneering at Mitt Romney’s business background. He and John McCain shared contempt for people who make a profit.”
The major divide was between ideological purity on taxes, spending and abortion and political pragmatism. John Cornyn, a senator from Texas who now chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, tasked with electing more Republicans to the Senate, made the case for pragmatism in picking the slate of candidates for the 2010 mid-term elections. “Now, not all of these candidates are going to be as conservative as I am on each and every issue—it’s critical that we get candidates that will fit their states and who can get elected,” he told skeptics. “I understand that, occasionally, we get frustrated by the way some of my colleagues vote—I do too. But a circular firing squad is no solution to the problems our party finds itself in right now.”
There was no shortage of policy ideas, no matter how diverse. Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, the top Republican on the House budget committee and a potential 2012 contender, made a quixotic call for a return to the gold standard and a flat tax. Gingrich, a potential rival, argued for eliminating capital gains taxes and slashing corporate taxes. There were market-based proposals for reforming health care. Many speakers saw their best opportunity to gain traction by criticizing Obama’s mortgage plan, which uses public funds to help reduce mortgage payments for homeowners who owe more on their homes than the properties are worth. Said Ryan: “What we have here is an update of Marx’s famous slogan: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.’ Now we have: ‘From the suckers who followed the rules to those who borrowed beyond their means.’ ”
Gingrich called Obama’s policies a “bold effort to create a European socialist model.” Socialism was mentioned in many speeches, but not everyone was on board. William Bennett, a conservative moralist and former Reagan education secretary, admonished the audience. “We need to watch our rhetoric,” he said. “What we are seeing now is not socialism—it is Democratic left-wing catechism.”
Foreign policy proposals and complaints were as wide-ranging as those that focused on the economy. Bolton complained that neither Bush nor Obama would agree to Israel bombing Iranian facilities, while Bennett complained that Obama doesn’t spend enough time talking about “the threat of Islamist terrorism.” “The President is not the economist in chief—he is the commander in chief!” he declared to applause. But Daniel Tucker, a conference attendee from Treasure Island, Fla., shook his head. “I disagree with the Bush-Obama foreign policy—foreign policy at the end of a gun barrel,” he said.
Comic relief came from professional provocateur Ann Coulter, who delivered a sarcasm-heavy monologue. “As the leader of 12 Apostles, even Jesus had more executive experience than Obama,” she quipped. Coulter likened Obama’s defeat of McCain by only seven points to a champion boxer taking on the oldest member of the White House press corps: “It was like George Foreman beating Helen Thomas in a 12th round on a technical knockout.” Her presentation, punctuated by frequent flipping of her long blond mane, a tight, Michelle Obama-esque sleeveless top showing off her angular arms, drew declarations of love from the young males in the audience. (Among them was one Canadian who asked, “How can we conservative Canadians earn the love we have for you?” Coulter responded, “That’s the thing about Canadians—you’re either really, really good or you’re bad. Around the beginning of the Iraq war, you were close to really, really bad.”)
But it took the event’s biggest star to really open up that big schism, between conservatives willing to compromise and those dedicated to bedrock Reaganite beliefs. When conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh lumbered up to the stage for a rare public appearance that was carried live on television networks, he declared, only half in jest, that he was making his first “address to the nation.” Limbaugh then let loose with an excoriating if somewhat rambling tirade that polarized Republicans even more. He took aim at the kind of policy wonkery offered by Gingrich and the pragmatism of Cornyn. “One thing that we can all do is stop assuming that the way to beat them is with better policy ideas right now,” said Limbaugh, who declared that conservatives should talk philosophy and principles to the voters. And he rebuked those congressional Republicans who have tried to use their limited clout to improve Democratic legislation, calling on them to reject Obama’s overtures of bipartisanship. “To us, bipartisanship is them being forced to agree with us after we politically have cleaned their clocks and beaten them. And that has to be what we’re focused on,” he said to an applauding crowd that filled several overflow ballrooms at the hotel.
Limbaugh raged at commentators who have called on the party to move beyond the orthodoxies of the Reagan era. “We have got to stamp this out within this movement, because it will tear us apart,” he declared. “You see, to me it’s a no-brainer. It’s not even something to me: how do you get rid of Reagan from conservatism? The blueprint—the blueprint for landslide conservative victory is right there. Why in the hell do the smartest people in our room want to chuck it? I know why. I know exactly why,” said Limbaugh, frequently mopping his brow. “It’s because they’re embarrassed of some of the people who call themselves conservatives. These people in New York and Washington, cocktail elitists, they get made fun of when the next NASCAR race is on TV and their cocktail buds come up to them—‘Those people are in your party? How do you put up with this?’ It would be easy to throw them overboard, so as to maintain these cocktail party/New York City/inside-the-Beltway media relationships.”
Limbaugh heaped particular scorn on a group of conservative columnists who dined with Obama before his inauguration at the home of syndicated columnist George Will. (Limbaugh boasted that on the same day of their dinner he was celebrating his birthday at the White House, where Bush presented him with a chocolate cake in the shape of a microphone.) But the climax came when Limbaugh refused to back down from his previous assertions that despite the state of the economy and the historic nature of Obama’s presidency, he wants Obama to “fail.” “What is so strange about being honest and saying, ‘I want Barack Obama to fail if his mission is to restructure and reform this country so that capitalism and individual liberty are not its foundation?’ ” Limbaugh asked. “Why would I want that to succeed?”
Prior to his speech, a coalition of liberal groups had begun airing TV ads that proclaimed, “Rush Limbaugh is the leader of the Republican party—he says jump and they say, how high?” Now, Limbaugh’s comments sent the newly elected, first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, eager to rebrand the GOP as something more than a party for white men, into damage control mode. He told CNN that Limbaugh is not the leader of the party, and should be put “into context.” “Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer,” Steele said. “Rush Limbaugh, his whole thing is entertainment. Yes it’s incendiary, yes it’s ugly.”
By Monday, Limbaugh was back in his Florida radio studio tearing Steele and congressional Republicans apart. “I’m not in charge of the Republican party, and I don’t want to be,” he said. “I would be embarrassed to say that I’m in charge of the Republican party in the sad-sack state that it’s in. If I were chairman of the Republican party, given the state that it’s in, I would quit. I might get out the hari-kiri knife because I would have presided over a failure that is embarrassing to the Republicans and conservatives who have supported it and invested in it all these years.”
Sensing blood in the water, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs later taunted journalists to ask other Republicans, “Do they want to see the President’s economic agenda fail?” Meanwhile, Steele quickly backed down. “My intent was not to go after Rush—I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh. I was maybe a little bit inarticulate,” he said. “There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership.” Other Democrats leapt on the spectacle. Steele’s Democratic counterpart, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, said the apology “proves the unfortunate point that Limbaugh is the leading force behind the Republican party, its politics and its obstruction of President Obama’s agenda in Washington.” Liberal bloggers compared Steele’s recantation to a Maoist re-education.
But if there was any consolation for conservatives going forward, it may have been that slightly more than half of the attendees were students, brimming with energy and optimism and dedication to conservative principles of small government. James Koury, a 20-year-old history major from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., arrived dressed in a pinstriped suit complete with pocket square, “to see some big names and discuss the future of conservatism.” He said the Republican party “needs to revamp its image” after having “strayed off the path.” He wanted to see the party “get away from social issues that tend to bring us down and focus on the fiscal issues. The last administration was not very good at sticking to conservative issues.” A survey of the attendees showed that 74 per cent believed reducing the size and scope of government was their “core belief and ideology,” while protecting traditional marriage and the unborn was the top issue for only 14 per cent.
The young activists were looking for their own Obama. “Someone young, a young new face,” said Molly Musselman, an anthropology major, also 20. “A lot of people say Sarah Palin, but I don’t think she’s the best candidate for the job. With the amount of bad press she received, I don’t think her reputation can be restored.” The GOP had high hopes for Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, born to Indian immigrant parents, who was touted as the Great Non-White Hope of the GOP, until his folksy, nasal delivery of the widely televised Republican response to Obama’s February budget speech drew comparisons to Mr. Rogers.
“There is a search for leadership and a coherent response to the problems we face,” said Sean Rushton, a Republican political consultant. “I believe President Obama was elected less because the American people voted for him and his ideas, and more as a vote of no confidence in Republicans—because the economy was in crisis. My view is that right now Republicans really need to focus on explaining what happened with the economic meltdown and how it needs to be fixed, and why they should be the ones to fix it. Until the party comes to one narrative about how the market melted down on our watch, it will be tough to win the public over.”
The 65-year-old Reagan veteran Bennett tried to soothe the frustrated conservatives by reminding them of the years it took the party to come from the post-Watergate political wilderness to the Reagan revolution. “Be patient,” he counselled. “Renewals don’t happen overnight.”