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02.26.09

The GOP's Comeback Kids

CPAC, the high-profile convention for conservative activists, begins today in Washington. John Avlon reports that the new party leaders—Mitt Romney, Bobby Jindal—face some tough choices, such as: How much do you play to the base?

CPAC, the high-profile convention for conservative activists, begins today in Washington. John Avlon reports that the new party leaders—Mitt Romney, Bobby Jindal—face some tough choices, such as: How much do you play to the base? Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.

For the next three days, I'll be sending dispatches from CPAC in Washington, D.C.—sort of a Star Trek convention for conservatives of all ages, a chance for right-of-center politicians to come down and curry favor with the ideologically faithful.

Republicans are in the wilderness, without the president or control of Congress for the first time in almost 15 years. They are in danger of becoming a regional party, preaching to a shrinking base. This should be a time for great internal debates determining, for example, whether libertarians should have a place at the table or whether social conservatives should control the GOP.

Republicans are fired up about their party's newfound fidelity on excessive spending—a principle that's apparently more convenient when you're out of power—but what other lessons have they learned from the excesses of Bush-Rove-DeLay era?

Republicans are fired up about their party's newfound fidelity on excessive spending—a principle that's apparently more convenient when you're out of power—but what other lessons have they learned from the excesses of Bush-Rove-DeLay era? If President Obama pursues entitlement reform, will conservatives help him or just say no?

In the past, Republicans have moved to the right after a relatively centrist nominee—Goldwater after Nixon in 1960, Reagan after Ford—and many conservatives consider John McCain's failure to have been because he was insufficiently conservative. I think that’s self-evidently absurd—kind of like Jesse Jackson saying the reason Walter Mondale lost was that he wasn’t liberal enough—but that’s the thinking.

book-cover---wingnuts
Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America. By John Avlon. 304 pages. Beast Books. $15.95. ()

The bottom-line in this first cattle-call in the run up to 2012 is you've got to put the odds on potential nominees from the right wing of the party, whether it's Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, or Sarah Palin (who won’t be attending CPAC). South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford or Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal would make more interesting nominees (yes, even after Jindal’s odd "Kenneth the Page"-esque delivery of the State of the Nation response) but all these folks are social conservatives by matter of degrees. There is no one in the likely Republican field that feels a courageous obligation to question whether the party's oft-professed belief in individual freedom should extend to gay rights or a woman’s right to choose.

Sometimes the view from the coasts can cause people to forget that 25 percent of Americans are evangelical Christians. Thirty-four percent of voters describe themselves as conservative compared to just 22 percent who say they are liberal—the deciding balance of 44 percent are in the center. We are essentially a center-right country, artificially divided between two parties. Where folks fall on the right—between earnest, thoughtful, militant and crazy—affects us all, because it helps to shape the terms of the national political debate. We’ll get a sense of the direction of conservatism in the next 48 hours.

Related: Day 1: Among the True Believers

John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Avlon also served as Director of Speechwriting and Deputy Director of Policy for Rudy Giuliani's Presidential Campaign. Previously, he was a columnist for the New York Sun and served as Chief Speechwriter and Deputy Communications Director for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He worked on Bill Clinton's 1996 presidential campaign.