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The Conservatives' 'Cleansing' Moment

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell got a standing ovation when he criticized President Obama's plan to close the Guantanamo Bay prison.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell got a standing ovation when he criticized President Obama's plan to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009

Same old hotel on the park, same ballrooms, same long lines down the corridor to hear the big-name speakers, but otherwise the landscape looks radically different for this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, which wrapped up yesterday afternoon at the Omni Shoreham. The conservatives are in the dark woods now. The deep brambles.

"I'm still seeing who will lead us out of this wilderness," said Sarah Smith, 27, of Alexandria.

The country's conservative, Republican-dominated strongholds have shrunk to the Deep South, the Plains and talk radio. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the Senate Republican leader, warned that the GOP cannot be satisfied with being a regional party. "We must make a comeback," he thundered in the Regency Ballroom.

This is the first time since the aftermath of Watergate that conservatives have known what it is like to be so completely out of power, out-funded, out-organized and arguably irrelevant to national governance. Even the free market has seemingly betrayed them, what with the Wall Street shenanigans, banking dysfunctions and auto industry incompetence.

This gloomy hour for the right is probably most akin to 1965: Routed at the polls, the bedrock conservatives see their worst dreams of big government becoming a legislative reality. One word that has surfaced repeatedly here in speeches and interviews has been "socialism."

"Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff," Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told a packed ballroom on Thursday.

"We now have moved a major step in the direction of socialism," Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) said Friday, adding: "We are close to a fascist system where the government has control of our lives and our economy."

The last three CPAC gatherings have seen an incremental decline in the fortunes of the conservative movement. Two years ago, CPAC was the hottest ticket in town, featuring a cattle call of Republican presidential hopefuls. Mitt Romney jump-started his presidential campaign with a speech designed to prove his conservative credentials. John McCain didn't show up, knowing that this crowd, which starts on the right of the ideological spectrum and walks out on the ideological wing from there, would never embrace him.

Romney returned last year, having spent tens of millions of his own dollars in an ill-fated presidential run, and announced that he was dropping out of the race. McCain appeared and hoped for a rapprochement. The conservatives had to make do with someone they didn't truly believe in.

And now there's this year. The bottom. Exile Island.

The conservative activists are hardly hangdog, however. Feisty is more like it. Some openly embrace the moment as purifying, an opportunity to get back to basics after years in which elected Republicans have strayed from what many here see as the righteous path.

"A good number of them forgot what their original position was and became part of the problem. And you have to cleanse that," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union and one of the conference leaders.


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