A Gathering of Young Conservatives

By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 18, 2007

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Up the winding mountain road, Rachel Coolidge pressed her digital camera to the window of the van she shared with other young conservatives, snapping pictures of the rough countryside loved by her hero, Ronald Reagan.

The van's radio blasted one of the many right-wing radio talk shows that have become the soundtrack of her 21-year-old life, and when she reached Rancho del Cielo, once Reagan's vacation retreat, Coolidge was almost giddy.

"Ronald Reagan is a huge inspiration," she said, standing on the 688-acre homestead where he famously cleared brush and rode horse trails when he escaped from Washington and the White House. "Amazing."

The 40th president is her definition of an ideal conservative leader: He lowered taxes, opposed abortion rights, fought communism. He's everything that this president of the College Republicans of the University of Houston wants the contenders for the Republican nomination to embody.

But, unlike Reagan, "none of them are perfect," she said.

Coolidge and the other 20-somethings on the trip are forging their political views in a world in which there is no living ideal, and the tenuous bonds of the conservative movement in which they were raised are fraying. They are adrift with no favorite candidate, so they turn back to the past for the ideals none in the current field fully possesses. In a sense, they are outliers themselves, marginalized on their liberal campuses. Sponsored by the nonprofit Young America's Foundation at what Reagan called his "open cathedral," this annual retreat for young conservatives is their haven.

Coolidge, wearing flip-flops and round movie-star sunglasses, came here with 39 other handpicked young activists. They would later be joined in a resort hotel nearby by 360 other Republican students from 118 universities and a few high schools for a kind of conservative boot camp designed to cement their beliefs.

Over the next couple of days, they all heard former attorney general John D. Ashcroft say to them that "the three things you find in the middle of the road are yellow lines, dead skunks and moderates." They bought books from Nonie Darwish, the controversial author of "Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror." Movie night featured a screening of "Rediscovering God in America," narrated by Newt and Callista Gingrich.

At the retreat, they found solidarity in their ongoing battle against liberals and big government, leaving reaffirmed in their principles but dispassionate about the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Mostly, they learned about the era that older conservatives have come to call their glory days: the Reagan administration.

Back home, away from the Reagan ranch and the retreat, things are more complicated. Some religious conservatives have threatened to bolt if the Republican Party's opposition to abortion diminishes. Fiscal conservatives are incensed by the growth in government spending under President Bush and scorn the idea of "compassionate conservatism." They all worry about the menace of global terrorism.

What's a young conservative to think amid all the angst? The Republican presidential contest is as wide open as it has ever been in their lifetimes, and none of the students is excited about any living politician.

"They are somewhat like so many other, more senior conservatives -- a little disillusioned right now," said Lee Edwards, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "To quote Reagan: 'What we need is a party of bold colors, not pale pastels.' Young people love bold colors, God bless them."

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