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Yes, We're Out of Power. But I'm Still Starstruck.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

I admit, I was a little hurt after overhearing a recent discussion about the lack of "star power" at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. Not only have I really been looking forward to CPAC, but this year I am actually on the agenda: "Book Signing: Exhibit Hall. Saturday. 12:30 pm." Tell me that doesn't ooze glitz and glamour.

Luckily, I don't have much of an ego about these things. But the diss did prompt me to briefly question my hipness.

See, in my world, stars don't come any bigger than Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, Mitt Romney and Mike Pence (if there were a congressional version of Teen Beat, the Indiana congressman would be on its cover every month). Michael Steele, Mike Huckabee and John Boehner are the Jonas Brothers of conservative celebrity. And all of them will be at CPAC 2009.

Am I the only one who gets excited at the thought of a two-hour discussion on "Protecting the Secret Ballot" or "Taking Action Through Citizen-Led Reform" in the Regency Ballroom? When I see such clever lecture titles as "Will Congress Take Your Guns?" and "Are We All Socialists Now?" I start salivating. Will it? Are we? I can't wait to find out.

Just announced -- Mario Lopez is speaking! Okay, it's Mario Lopez of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, and not the hunky headliner of "Saved By the Bell" and "Dancing With the Stars," but still -- he's going to be great, I just know it.

And doesn't everyone want to have "Breakfast With Phyllis Schlafly"? Just me?

If my excitement about CPAC makes me seem hopelessly out of touch, uncool or miles from MTV reality, I can live with that. In my defense, I'm also looking forward to drinking boxed wine with such friends and colleagues as Tucker Carlson, Stephen Baldwin and Andrew Breitbart during the forced socialization of conference happy hours. You'd be surprised how many big deals are done over pigs-in-a-blanket and cubed cheese. And yes, I just totally name-dropped.

But I can also be objective, and actually, it's true -- CPAC has lost a little luster this year (which is probably how I ended up on the agenda). No former presidents or vice presidents are scheduled to appear. A number of the party's biggest names, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, aren't on the speakers' list so far, either. And Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- the Angelina Jolie of the GOP -- will address the conference only via video.

This doesn't mean that attendees won't have any good autographs to chase, photos to snap or books to get signed. Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh -- they're all best-selling authors and bona fide rock stars in conservative circles. And Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum will not want for attention. But conserva-palooza it won't be. Those days are gone, at least for now.

Last year, of course, was pretty hard to top. It was an election year, and everyone who's anyone was there. President Bush spoke, as did Vice President Cheney. Mitt Romney, the man many of us wanted to be president, gave his dramatic concession speech to an adoring crowd. John McCain made a memorably tentative entrance into a roomful of divided Republicans -- some of whom booed, many of whom cheered and the rest of whom sat silently in disconcerting ambivalence. Former White House spokesman Tony Snow made an inspiring public appearance just months before losing his battle with colon cancer. And columnist George Will delivered a hilarious address and a rousing defense of McCain at the Reagan dinner.

But more than the speakers, there was a feeling in the air -- a sense of urgency and knowing. It was a critical moment. Could a schizophrenic party rally its troops around a common message in time to elect a president? Would Bush help or hurt? Who would leave CPAC as prom king? What, if anything, could we do to make sure that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were still in the Senate after November?

And the world was watching, too. Reporters from every country and every news outlet descended on Washington's Omni Shoreham Hotel to see what would happen, who would say what and what it all meant for the upcoming election.

But will anyone come watch us this year? More importantly, do we want them to?

We're rebuilding and, frankly, recovering -- strategizing about how to approach the next two, three and four years. As any athlete knows, you don't want to compete publicly until you're in peak condition, and we're a long way from that.

We just elected Michael Steele the first African American head of the Republican National Committee. CPAC will be his first major public appearance and a chance to show what kind of leader he'll be. Republican lawmakers will weigh in on the stimulus bill, discuss their still-fresh experiences dealing with the Obama administration and tell us what they think we need to do while the Democrats are in power.

Conservative bloggers and activists will lay out the grass-roots efforts we can make to reach new voters, or those who abandoned us last year. Young Republican chapters will reach out to high school and college students and ponder what they might do to get a piece of the youth voter pie.

If that all sounds like a bit of a downer, so be it. Maybe there are cooler, sunnier ways to spend a weekend, but this is reality for Republicans. There's serious work to be done, and as President Obama said himself, the party's over.

Which is not to say that we won't have some fun at CPAC 2009. After all, I'll be there. (Exhibition Hall, 12:30, remember.) And let's not forget the thrill of the unplanned and unexpected. The environment at conferences like CPAC is ripe spectacle -- the hilarity of an inebriated speaker, the hysteria over a surprise guest, or an awkward moment between you and that woman you met last year whose name you've completely forgotten.

Last year a disheveled-looking man sat on a street corner near the hotel all four days, pan-handling. He held a cardboard sign that read, "Bush is Bi." I'm not sure what he meant by that -- I have a feeling he didn't know, either -- but I really hope he'll be there again. Who needs star power when you have memories like that?

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