A sheep in wolf’s clothing
It was not a safe place for a college student from Massachusetts, an Obama-voting, Earthfoods-frequenting liberal, to suddenly find myself surrounded by the reddest of the red, the pure-blood conservatives who, after all the years of escalating budgets, the never-ending Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, the bathroom stall foot-tapping, and the Bush backlash, still identify as conservatives. Who were these 10,000 people? The miniature flag-waving, three-piece-suit-wearing bodies came together for the same reasons they convene every year – Underneath the hanging crystal chandeliers and emblazoned NRA signs hanging in the Wardman Park Marriott in Washington, D.C., conservatives hope that after all their recent struggles they can find what it takes to get America back from what only a year ago had appeared to be an insurmountable public referendum.
So here conservatives gathered from 50 states to hold conferences, exposing “The Hoax of Global Warming” and to “Save Freedom from College Campuses,” all in hopes that someone or something would emerge from the seemingly leaderless throng. That any of the gathered speakers over the course of these three days – from Massachusetts veterans Mitt Romney and Scott Brown to those with moderate appeal like Ron Paul and Allen West – would, through their rhetoric, unite the scattered herds of the party and lead “A Conservative Comeback in 2010.”
But why was I there? Well, I’d like to think that it’s because democracy is a conversation. It takes two equally engaged parties. Sure, I’m on the executive board of the UMass Democrats, but as a newly inspired Democrat waiting for all this hope and change stuff to pass through a Congress that’s about as clogged as a rush hour thru-way, I figured I’d hop over the aisle and see what the other side had to say.
And they had a lot to say, as this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) burned with a fire as if the future of America was at stake last weekend. An annual event since 1973 – not openly affiliated with the Republican Party but visited by every major Republican from Karl Rove to Ronald Reagan – preach to its flock. The overarching theme of the conference, “Saving Freedom,” was underlying the rhetoric of most of the conference’s speakers. The Republican Party has been accused of being bankrupt of ideas, and more unfavorably as being, “the party of No.”
In short, the Republican Party has an identity problem, one that was addressed head-on and most passionately by keynote speaker, Glenn Beck. He reckoned the Republican Party with images of his own life filled with addiction and eventual recovery, and more aptly with Tiger Wood’s recent apology to the American public.
“The first step to getting redemption is you’ve got to admit you’ve got a problem,” Beck said. He was railing against the crowd with a piece of chalk gripped in hand, his face flushing, his words serving to stop in their tracks those who wanted only to clap at something optimistic.
“I have not heard people in the Republican Party admit that they have a problem,” Beck continued. “And when they do say they have a problem, I don’t know if I believe them. I don’t know what they even stand for anymore.”
What does a post-Bush Republican stand for? If you’re Rep. Mike Pence (R-Indiana) it means you still want to go back and retroactively “deny Planned Parenthood funding.” That in order to best deal with our biggest economic alley and bottomless pocketbook, China, America “needs to have one-hand extended in diplomacy, and the other on the holster of the arsenal of Democracy.” If you’re Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) you blame the “media and elites for bailout nation” and “turning a manageable recession into a 10-year depression,” while you equate America with a story of brave soldiers on a sinking ship, ones who “chose greatness rather than American decline.” If you’re Newt Gingrich, the architect of the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, you walk to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and shake hands with the crowd before championing this nay-saying sentiment, “the best way to defeat [health care] is to slow the debate down” to a chorus of applause. Then you thank President Obama. You thank him for the “coming massive conservative majority” that without him “would not have been possible.”
Well, there I was in the midst of this throng that was about as diverse as a bag of green M&Ms, tagging along with Brad DeFlumeri, one of the most hated ideologues that the UMass campus has yet produced and the one-time leader of the UMass Republican Club when it was our most outspoken and controversial student organization. During his tenure as the club’s president, it was one of the most infamous campus groups, going to war with the Radical Student Union and even the Collegian by printing his own monthly “newspaper,” the now-defunct “Minuteman.”
However, according to DeFlumeri as we lounged about a hotel room in Bethesda, Md., even he “hasn’t identified as a Republican for the last 13 months.” So what does the modern-day conservative stand for?
In order to figure that out, CPAC turned to its annual straw poll, the barometer by which those who identify with this ideology gauge their beliefs and values. Every year before the keynote speaker, CPAC founder David Keene, and for the last seven years its leading pollster Tony Fabrizio, have announced the results of the CPAC straw poll. With more than 2,300 voters, 64 percent of which were male and 54 percent of which constituted young Americans ages “18-25,” the poll served to give conservatives something to chew on before midterm elections. It attempted to give an idea of where the party’s constituents stand on issues that could serve to coalesce the party in hopes of reaching that great majority.
So what did they learn? Well, some things were more obvious than insightful. Of the gathered conservatives who voted, 98 percent “disapprove of Obama’s presidency.” However, the poll did show significant fluctuation on many issues. 80 percent listed “individual freedom and size of government” as the most important goal for the party, while in contrast only nine percent voted for “advancing pro-life agendas.” Similarly, 52 percent voted that the size of government was the most important issue facing the party, while only one percent voted that it was gay marriage.
One issue came to a head when Ryan Sorba, the head of the California Young Americans for Freedom, took the stage with his peers and used the platform to blast CPAC for inviting GoProud, a pro-gay Republican group. As he was booed off-stage he mocked the crowd, shouting, “the lesbians at Smith College protest better than you,” twice, for the extra emphasis. He was referring to protests against his speech promoting his book, “The Born Gay Hoax” at Smith.
While one would likely think that with all the pragmatic refrains for fiscal responsibility, Mitt Romney repeated as the 2010 straw poll winner for the most likely political candidate in 2012, holding on to his 2009 crown. However, despite dealing with a medium level of boos and deviating substantially from the party line, omitting mentions of Reagan and Obama from his speech, Ron Paul rose from a 13 percent third-place finish last year to first place, taking 31 percent of the vote.
Until then, however, the Republicans have some work to do figuring out which platform will be best to win back the hearts and minds of the American people. Some ways that they plan to do this are by learning from their mistakes. At the “Television Training Workshop,” which asked its audience to talk about how the American public views conservatives, more than a few uttered the word “un-cool.”
The rest of the talk focused on future politicians studying the way television can be used to sway voters, with more than a few references to the last champion of conservatism, Ronald Reagan.
There were other small signs the Republican Party is becoming susceptible to new ideas. Campusreform.org, a new social networking site for conservative students, was tabling the conference. The new service offers those on campuses a chance to voice their ideas to a large audience, promoting discussion of conservative ideas.
Yet another independent lobbying group, Citizens Opposing Prohibition, was successful at drawing people from all walks of life to talk about our nation’s drug policy. No doubt spurred on by its spokesman, the 10-gallon hat wearing Howard “Cowboy” Wooldridge, a retired police detective who lobbies on behalf of legalizing all sorts of drugs from marijuana to heroin.
There was still an overwhelming feeling of a railroad car that was about to come unhinged that just couldn’t be shook. For every “Cowboy” Wooldridge that championed new ideas and different approaches, there were the tea partiers harkening back to patriotism’s revolutionary roots.
It seems that even though the GOP recently has been handed the blueprints for the Republicans of tomorrow in the form of Scott Brown, the schism of the party is only widening. And if the GOP wants any shot at 2010, they need to figure out how to bridge the gap between the fiscally friendly moderates and the growing radical right. Let’s just hope that this is one time the Republican Party doesn’t produce a “bridge to nowhere.”
The great conversation that is democracy depends on it.
Pete Rizzo is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.