The Conservatives' 'Cleansing' Moment
Some, Deploring GOP Missteps, See Adversity as a Chance to Get Back to Basics

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.

He noted that CPAC attendance is up from last year. Conservatives and Republicans aren't synonymous, he said. Conservatism didn't lose the election; Republicans lost it, he said: "If this were a gathering of Republicans, they would be down and have every right to be down. They were repudiated."

Including at this conference. Shock pundit Ann Coulter yesterday aimed almost as many verbal darts at McCain as she did at President Obama. Obama beating McCain, she said, was like George Foreman in his prime beating White House correspondent Helen Thomas in the 12th round on a technical knockout.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a possible future presidential candidate, worked the talk-radio booths in the exhibit hall, saying that Obama and his policies have set up precisely the right national debate as the country heads toward the 2010 midterm elections. "No American I know of honestly believes the Treasury and the bureaucracy can actually run this economy," Gingrich said.

Not many people had anything kind to say about the recently retired President George W. Bush, who is sometimes called a liberal masquerading as a conservative.

" 'Compassionate conservative,' I have no idea what that means," said James Campbell, 24, of Arlington.

The grim election results have exposed the fractures in the movement, threatening to shred the coalition of social conservatives, fiscal conservatives and national security conservatives. More broadly, the Republican Party faces a quandary on whether to retrench to core conservative values or try to reach out to a broader constituency.

There are some basic questions to be answered, such as: Has the right become too conservative or not conservative enough? Is it enough to be a party of "no," or do Republicans need to reinvent themselves and provide new ideas of their own?

Conservative pundit Tucker Carlson endorsed the cleansing effects of catastrophic failure: "It's the end of the road for self-denial," he said.

Carlson got in a bit of a dust-up with the audience when he spoke Thursday. Arguing that conservatives need to put more effort into digging up facts and rely less on opinion and punditry, he noted that the New York Times, a favorite target of conservative wrath, at least cares about spelling people's names right.

"NOOOOOOO," arose a moan from some in the crowd.

"I'm merely saying that at the core of their news-gathering operation is gathering news."

"NOOOOO . . ."

". . . finding facts and bringing it to people . . ."

"NOOOOO . . ."

Much of the rhetoric at the conference centered on issues that are staples of conservative talk radio. McConnell managed to draw a standing ovation with a jab at the Obama administration for its plan to remove detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. "What the Obama administration needs to answer is a very simple question: Where exactly do you intend to send these guys?"

"San Francisco!" someone said.

McConnell said that was a good suggestion and added: "Let me tell you where they ought to be. They ought to be right there in the jail in Guantanamo!"

As the crowd cheered, he said, "You guys get it."

There was much talk among Republican speakers of coming up with new ideas.

"We're not just going to be the Party of No. We're not just going to be the party of opposition," said Rep. John A. Boehner (Ohio), the House minority leader. But he offered little more beyond the notion of keeping government limited and "unleashing the power of freedom" in the lives of Americans.

McConnell painted a bleak picture: Republicans have vanished from the congressional delegations in New England. The Republican nominee won only 4 percent of the African American vote in the presidential election and did poorly among Hispanics as well. Large swaths of the electorate have stopped paying attention to Republicans, he said.

"You can walk from Canada to Mexico and from Montana to Maine without ever leaving a state in this country that has a Democratic governor," McConnell said.

Huckabee sounded a populist note: "We've got to get the word out that the Republican Party is not just a haven for rich white guys who want to get richer."

Bay Buchanan, the conservative pundit, paused in the hotel corridor to offer a realistic assessment of the prospects of continued Democratic dominance: "As long as they're pursuing legislation that appears to be working, we won't be able to come back," she said. "If the economy comes back, the group in power stays in power. It's that simple."

A measure of the conservative predicament was the seeming reluctance of some speakers to directly attack the president. It is as though Obama's popularity created a cloak of unmentionability. "Nancy Pelosi" and "Harry Reid," however, served as pungent invectives for this crowd. Talk show host Roger Hedgecock got a bit personal in his ballroom speech Thursday: "I've never met Pelosi's husband, but I want to give the guy a medal. Can you imagine?"

Pelosi and Reid are really the ones calling the shots, not Obama, said anti-taxation guru Grover Norquist at a gathering of young conservatives Friday morning.

"Barack Obama is the guy who signs the bills, but Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are the ones who run the government," he said. If the government were a martini, he said, "Obama is the vermouth."

One man did take on Obama repeatedly. Romney, in a carefully crafted address late Friday that sounded like a practice run for a 2012 presidential stump speech, began with conciliatory words for the new president before his rhetoric sharpened, culminating in standing ovations and one brief eruption of "USA! USA! USA!"

"It is not the time to fulfill every liberal dream and spend the country into catastrophe," said Romney, who edged Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in a straw poll yesterday as the person CPAC attendees would like to see as the GOP presidential candidate in 2012.

Noting Obama's announcement Friday that combat troops will be out of Iraq by August 2010, Romney said, "It is in spite of Barack Obama's stance on Iraq, not because of it, that the troops are coming home in victory." The ballroom erupted in applause.

Rush Limbaugh, touted by many conservatives as the de facto head of the party in the interregnum, closed the conference with his own speech. "We can take this country back," the radio host told the assembly. "All we need is to nominate the right candidate. It's no more complicated than that."

"We're not quitting. We're not giving up," he said to some of the loudest applause of the weekend.

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