article

02.27.09

Among the True Believers

On the first day of the CPAC conference, conservatives were a feisty bunch without a leader. But they had a remedy for the Republican woes: be more conservative.

On the first day of the CPAC conference, conservatives were a feisty bunch without a leader. But they had a remedy for the Republican woes: be more conservative. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.

As I pulled up to the Omni-Shoreham in Washington, D.C., there they were on the surrounding street-corners, as conspicuous as Mormon missionaries in the Caribbean—packs of coat and tied youth, pasty white and looking for lunch. They were recent émigrés from the CPAC conference, a temporary encampment of conservatives in the wilderness of Obama’s Washington.

Conservatives here see themselves as defenders of freedom and original principles—patriotism’s defense against a fate like the fall of Rome.

Inside, the lobby and hallways were packed with true believers—it’s half convention and half-group therapy session. This is a party in warlord mode, competing camps without a clear leader. On their college campuses and in the larger electorate they may feel misunderstood, but here they hope to find safety in numbers.

“Lenin and Stalin would have loved this stuff,” says Mike Huckabee, referring to the big-government bailout bonanzas that begun under Bush. “The Party of Reagan became the Party of Chicken Little,” he says to thunderous applause. “They pulled the TARP over our eyes.”

For all the sarcasm and accusations of socialism directed at President Obama, their immediate anger is focused on party purging before rebuilding. “Why is ‘the architect’ [Karl Rove] giving free advice, even as people like us crawl from the rubble of the collapsed structure built from his blueprints?” asks National Review contributing editor Deroy Murdock. “Imagine clicking on the TV and catching a show called Cooking with Typhoid Mary.”

Their diagnosis of what went wrong with the Bush years is basically over-spending. “They stopped being conservative” is the line you hear over and over. The remedy then is simple and self-reinforcing: “The Key to Victory: Listen to Conservatives,” as one panel put it. What’s being punted is the thornier question of what conservative means.

Libertarians form sort of a fifth column here, with Ron Paul supporters passing out fliers and a magazine picturing Paul and Obama rolling up their sleeves, getting ready for a fight. Inside articles question fret about James Madison’s “dark-side” and characterize Alexander Hamilton as an “arch-centralist.” But beyond the dusty arguments about the gold standard, there are emerging signs of defiance on social issues. Author Andrew Klavan drew a reassuring amount of applause with this dose of common sense: “We can’t just say ‘we hate gay people—vote Republican.’”

Sarah Palin isn’t speaking this year, but you can get her gear all over the place, bags and buttons that say, “Don’t blame me, I voted for Sarah” When I asked one Sarah-fan from Fargo, North Dakota, about her view of social issues she described abortion as “a personal decision” and when asked about gay marriage she said that she was in favor of civil unions, but not marriage.

Conservatives here see themselves as defenders of freedom and original principles—patriotism’s defense against a fate like the fall of Rome. But there is a danger that comes from the love of being misunderstood by the larger culture—an impulse to define what you are against with greater fervor than what you are for. The selection of Cong. Michelle Bachmann—who disgracefully questioned whether then-candidate Obama had “anti-American views” during the campaign—as the “Presidential Banquet” Master of Ceremonies speaks to the defiant pridefulness of the what she kept referring to as “the ground zero of the conservative movement.” The mounds of free copies of “The Case Against Barack Obama” given out as an exit present only clarified the opposition identity—they see themselves as the resistance.

With the cavalcade of speakers still coming up—including Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Anne Coulter and Rush Limbaugh—expect more fuel to be poured on that fire, producing lots of heat. We’ll see how much light.

Related: The GOP's Comeback Kids

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.