By Dana Milbank
Sunday, February 21, 2010; A03
After three days of liberal bashing, 10,000 right-wing activists attending the Conservative Political Action Conference used their final night in town to give a sharp rebuke to . . . the Republicans?
First came the results of CPAC's presidential straw poll, in which the runaway winner was Ron Paul, the antiwar libertarian gadfly who is only nominally a Republican. At 31 percent, he polled far better than more conventional candidates such as Mitt Romney (22 percent), Sarah Palin (7 percent) and Tim Pawlenty (6 percent). A majority of voters said they wished the Republicans had a better field of potential candidates.
Then it was time for the keynote speaker, the wildly popular Fox News host Glenn Beck. "I voted Republican almost every time," he said, and "I don't even know what they stand for anymore. And they've got to realize that they have a problem: 'Hello, my name is the Republican Party, and I've got a problem. I'm addicted to spending and big government.'"
The audience in the Marriott Wardman Park gave a huge cheer.
"But as of yet I haven't heard anyone say that," Beck added. "All they're talking about is: 'We need a big tent. We need a big tent. Can we get a bigger tent? How can we get a big tent?' "
"What is this, a circus?" Beck asked.
A screwdriver to the eye
For most of the three-day conference, the conservatives took aim at their favorite targets, President Obama, congressional Democrats, the media and Hollywood. By Saturday evening, the hot air and the overflow crowd had warmed the ballroom to an uncomfortable temperature. Coats came off and speakers perspired. Someone brought Beck a white towel midway through his address.
But there was something different about the message of the final session, as the activists sent an unmistakable message to the Republicans that they can't be taken for granted.
The straw poll was one sign. Approval for Obama was, naturally, all of 2 percent -- and those people probably like him because he's been helpful to Republican electoral chances. But 37 percent said they disapprove of congressional Republicans. And Michael Steele, the Republican national chairman, was viewed favorably by only 42 percent.
In overall popularity, Beck and Rush Limbaugh, at 70 percent apiece, were second only to Senate conservative Jim "Waterloo" DeMint (73 percent) and well ahead of Republican leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.
The Ron Paul victory got a mixed reaction of cheers followed by boos in the hall. But there was no such division when Beck, likened to Babe Ruth in the introduction, entered the room to pounding music and a strobe effect from flashes. He had a roving microphone and called for his blackboard to teach his listeners about the evils of progressivism.
"It is still morning in America," Beck said. "It just happens to be kind of a head-pounding, hung-over, vomiting for four hours" morning. "The question is what made us sit there in the john vomiting for four hours?"
He scribbled "progressivism" on the board and said it afflicts Republicans as well as Democrats. "I'm so sick of hearing people say, 'Oh, Republicans are going to solve it all.' Really? It's just progressive-light.
"It's like somebody sticking a screwdriver in your eye," he continued, "and somebody else pulls it out and puts a pin in your eye. I don't want stuff in my eye."'A socialist utopia'
In an apparent reference to John McCain, Beck condemned a "guy in the Republican Party who says his favorite president is Theodore Roosevelt." He then read disapprovingly the Roosevelt quote that "we grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used . . . so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community."
"Is this what the Republican Party stands for?" Beck demanded. He was answered with boos and cries of "no!" "It's big government, it's a socialist utopia and we need to address it as if it is a cancer."
Obama, no doubt, will be delighted to learn that he has been joined in the conservatives' ire by the Hero of San Juan Hill.
Beck went on. "It's not enough just to not suck as much as the other side."
The CPAC activists gave this line a standing ovation.
The barrage continued. "One party will tax and spend; one party won't tax but will spend: It's both of them," he said. And as for George W. Bush's presidency, "anybody who thought that George Bush was spending and it made any kind of sense was a madman."
"I'm a recovering alcoholic, and I screwed up my life six ways to Sunday," Beck said. "I believe in redemption, but the first step to getting redemption is you've got to admit that you've got a problem. I have not heard people in the Republican Party yet admit that they have a problem."
The CPAC activists went off to party, but Republican leaders were the ones likely to have headaches on Sunday morning.