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The Conservatives’ Lost Decade

Former President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (WDCpix)
Former President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (WDCpix)

Former President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (WDCpix)

?John McCain, the 2008 Republican Party nominee for president, was not invited to speak at this past weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference. Neither was former President George W. Bush, and neither was former Vice President Dick Cheney.

“Our big effort this year was not to look back, but to look forward,” said David Keene, the chairman of American Conservative Union, a CPAC sponsor, on Saturday.

Image by: Matt Mahurin
Image by: Matt Mahurin

Image by: Matt Mahurin

The 36th annual meeting of the conservative movement — the largest ever, with more than 8,500 attendees, as organizers delighted in pointing out — was marked by its rejection of the past decade of conservative government. The name of the president who left office one month earlier, and who had won the CPAC presidential straw poll back in 1999, rarely escaped the lips of speakers. When it did, it was a token of praise for Bush’s foreign policy or — more often — a knock at his economic record.

“We got big spending under Bush,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in his Friday speech to the conference. “Now we’ve got big spending under Obama.”

The only images of George W. Bush that CPAC attendees could find in the crowded exhibit hall appeared at a booth for The Washington Times, which was offering, at a discount, a new book about his presidency titled “W.” A few steps away was the booth of Muslims for America, a Republican political committee founded in 2004 as “Muslims for Bush.” The only politician pictured in the group’s display was Newt Gingrich.

Conservatives at CPAC restarted their political clock at 1993, the first years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, before the Republican takeover. They also cast the 2008 election as a narrow and unearned Democratic victory made possible by a biased media that defended Barack Obama and destroyed Gov. Sarah Palin. The compressed history agreed upon at CPAC is that Republicans will win the 2010 elections if they utterly reject compromise with Democrats and re-brand themselves as the party of spending cuts and Ronald Reagan.****

In a Saturday interview with TWI, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) argued that Republicans had “gotten lazy” during the Bush era. “We just think that we can make a speech and say we’re going to cut your taxes and [Americans] are going to vote for it,” said Sessions, pausing after taking a flyer from a Ron Paul volunteer about auditing the Federal Reserve. “We’ve got to go back and make the intellectual case for why a lean, efficient [government] is better than a bloated, politically driven, pork-driven government.”

Asked why McCain had made that argument in 2008 and yet lost the presidential election, Sessions argued that this had been a problem of message and credibility. “Sen. McCain did have a record opposing pork,” said Sessions, “but neither he nor President Bush, I think, were convincing to the American people that they fully understood and were committed to containing the growth of government.”**

**

If this sounds familiar, it’s because conservatives argued the same things sixteen years ago, at the first CPAC of the Clinton presidency. “There were eight years of Reagan and four years of Bush,” said political strategist Ed Rollins from that CPAC’s dais, “and never should the two be confused.” Don Derham, then the secretary of Young Americans for Freedom, told reporters that it had been “tough to sell conservative philosophy under Bush” and that conservatives were now in the “enviable position” of “not having to run government programs but being able to criticize them.”

Conservatives took much the same line at this year’s CPAC, and claimed that Americans were ready for the party to block Democratic bills. “It’s going to take some time for this to play out,” said Rush Limbaugh in his closing address to the convention on Saturday. “But I spoke to David Keene, interviewing him for my newsletter. I asked him about this. He said they’re going to overreach. Wouldn’t you say they have?”

Anger at President Obama was open and, occasionally, paranoid. While there was little anti-Barack Obama merchandise on display, speaker after speaker and attendee after attendee spoke openly of the new president as a “socialist,” a “Marxist,” and a threat to the country’s traditions. Cliff Kincaid of the conservative Accuracy in Media, a co-sponsor of the event, used his time at the dais to further a discredited conspiracy that the president was born outside America’s borders. “At least in the 1980s,” said Kincaid. “We knew our president was born in the United States!”

“I loved it!” said Allen Metzger of Jenkintown, Pennsylvania after Kincaid spoke. “I thought they had a strong case for disqualifying Obama, but the media didn’t get interested and never got on it.”

Many attendees distanced themselves from these kinds of attacks; MSNBC host Joe Scarborough warned the crowd that it would “never get anywhere calling Barack Obama a communist.”

Harris was confident of his chances in a congressional rematch as long as President Obama continued working as he did in February. Voters, he said “will be waiting to get out and vote in 2010 and divide government in Washington. They’re going to want a right-leaning Congress to balance out a very left-leaning president.”

Many conservatives who had felt shut out and marginalized in the Bush years felt vindicated by the defeat of 2008. Immigration restrictionists had a large presence at CPAC, bolstered by a new group, Young People for Western Civilization, and the omnipresent former congressman Tom Tancredo and Team America PAC leader Bay Buchanan. At a launch party Friday night for the group, Tancredo was mobbed for photos as Peter Brimelow, editor of the immigration restrictionist web site VDare.com, huddled in a corner nursing a cough.

Brimelow, like Tancredo, scoffed at the idea that the Republican comeback would come when the party reached out to Hispanic voters. “Republicans fluctuate between disastrous and catastrophic with the Hispanic vote,” he said. “The problem that Republicans had was that they didn’t turn out the white vote, and they didn’t get as large a share of the white vote as they should have. What reason did McCain give them?”

Republican members of Congress said much the same thing. “The time to go-along to get-along is over,” said Rep. Mike Pence, the third-ranking Republican in the House, in his Friday speech. “I can feel it. I can hear it. Our nation’s very revolution itself began with rumblings of discontent.” Mike Huckabee, who followed Pence, called him a “congressional hero,” one of many whose opposition to the September Wall Street rescue package was “spurned by both president Bush and Sen. McCain,” thus leading to Republican defeat.

“That moment was not our best moment,” said Huckabee. “It would have been our best shot at winning the White House, a chance to offer a true, authentic, conservative choice, rather than a meek, me-too way of doing things. We missed our chance.”

One Republican who agreed with Huckabee was Andy Harris, a Maryland state senator who’s running for Congress against Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-Maryland). Last year, with the backing of the Club for Growth, Harris defeated Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Maryland) in a heated three-way 2008 primary, blasting Gilchrest for his opposition to tax cuts. Kratovil won the general election, an upset that Harris chalked up to an “extraordinary year,” and not something that discredited his strategy.

“If I had been elected,” said Harris, “I would’ve voted against the stimulus bill, against SCHIP, against Lily Ledbetter, and I would have voted against the omnibus spending bill.”

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