By Dana Milbank
Saturday, February 11, 2006
You could find just about everything at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference this week: the bumper sticker that says "Happiness is Hillary's face on a milk carton," the "Straight Pride" T-shirt, a ride on an F-22 Raptor simulator at the Lockheed exhibit, and beans from the Contra Cafe coffee company (slogan: "Wake up with freedom fighters").
As of midday yesterday, a silent auction netted $300 for lunch with activist Grover Norquist, $275 for a meal with the Heritage Foundation president and $1,000 for a hunting trip with the American Conservative Union chairman. But lunch with former congressman Bob Barr (R-Ga.), with an "estimated value" of $500, had a top bid of only $75 -- even with a signed copy of Barr's book, "The Meaning of Is," thrown in.
No surprise there. The former Clinton impeachment manager is the skunk at CPAC's party this year. He says President Bush is breaking the law by eavesdropping on U.S. citizens without warrants. And fellow conservatives, for the most part, don't want to hear it.
"You've heard of bear baiting? We're going to have, today, Barr baiting," R. Emmet Tyrell, a conservative publisher, announced as he introduced a debate Thursday between Barr and Viet Dinh, one of the authors of the USA Patriot Act.
"Are we losing our lodestar, which is the Bill of Rights?" Barr beseeched the several hundred conservatives at the Omni Shoreham in Woodley Park. "Are we in danger of putting allegiance to party ahead of allegiance to principle?"
Barr answered in the affirmative. "Do we truly remain a society that believes that . . . every president must abide by the law of this country?" he posed. "I, as a conservative, say yes. I hope you as conservatives say yes."
But nobody said anything in the deathly quiet audience. Barr merited only polite applause when he finished, and one man, Richard Sorcinelli, booed him loudly. "I can't believe I'm in a conservative hall listening to him say [Bush] is off course trying to defend the United States," Sorcinelli fumed.
Far more to this crowd's liking was Vice President Cheney, who stopped by CPAC late Thursday and suggested the surveillance program as a 2006 campaign issue. "With an important election coming up, people need to know just how we view the most critical questions of national security," he told the cheering crowd.
Dinh, now a Georgetown law professor, urged the CPAC faithful to carve out a Bush exception to their ideological principle of limited government. "The conservative movement has a healthy skepticism of governmental power, but at times, unfortunately, that healthy skepticism needs to yield," Dinh explained, invoking Osama bin Laden.
Dinh brought the crowd to a raucous ovation when he judged: "The threat to Americans' liberty today comes from al Qaeda and its associates and the people who would destroy America and her people, not the brave men and women who work to defend this country!"
It was the sort of tactic that has intimidated Democrats and the last few libertarian Republicans who question the program's legality. But Barr is not easily suppressed. During a 2002 Senate primary, he accidentally fired a pistol at a campaign event; at a charity event a decade earlier, he licked whipped cream from the chests of two women.
Barr wasn't going to get a lesson on patriotism from this young product of the Bush Justice Department. "That, folks, was a red herring," he announced. "This debate is very simple: It is a debate about whether or not we will remain a nation subject to and governed by the rule of law or the whim of men."
He invoked Goldwater and Reagan and even said he would support Bush's program if it had congressional support. But Barr was a prophet without honor in his own land. "Why does the FISA law trump the Constitution?" one woman demanded of him. "Why should a non-elected, non-briefed judge be able to veto our national security?"
Conservatives were sore that Barr put his disagreements with Bush in the pages of Time magazine. Another questioner scolded Barr for agreeing to introduce an Al Gore speech that was also sponsored by MoveOn.org. "I have nothing whatsoever to do with them," Barr pleaded.
Still, the old prosecutor managed to elicit a crucial concession from Dinh: that the administration's case for its program comes down to saying "Trust me."
"None of us can make a conclusive assessment as to the wisdom of that program and its legality," Dinh acknowledged, "without knowing the full operational details. I do trust the president when he asserts that he has reviewed it carefully and therefore is convinced that there is full legal authority."
The crowd was against him, but Barr, leaving the event, claimed the clear conscience of a conservative. "I just told them what they need to know," he said.
Barr elaborated on his conundrum. "It's difficult," he acknowledged. "It's not about sex, which was very easy to explain."
Love him or hate him, you have to give Barr high marks for consistency. "Whether it's a sitting president when I was an impeachment manager, or a Republican president who has taken liberties with adherence to the law, to me the standard is the same," he said.
And, besides, who cares about a little criticism?
"No more than normal," Barr reported.
Political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.