Conservatives, Fired Up

A frisky, fun keynote by Beck, an encouraging straw poll that left Palin with a happily meager 7 percent—CPAC showed that for better or worse, the GOP is fired up and ready to go.

There’s a joke they used to tell in Franco’s Spain: two guys in bar. First guy says to the other, “What do you think of Generalissimo Franco?” Second guy looks around nervously to see if anyone is listening, then says to the guy, “Follow me.” They leave the bar, walk down a deserted alley. The second guy finally stops, looks around again to see if they were followed, then whispers to the first guy: “I like him.”

I thought of it Saturday while listening to—brace yourselves—Glenn Beck, giving the keynote at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

If the Republican Party, Beck noted, had given a Tiger Woods-type apologia, he’d go all out for it.

I’ve not been a fan of Beck’s. (Rather the opposite, in fact, while conceding that he is at least a very talented demagogue.) But there was something refreshing in his fundamental message, to wit, We have seen the enemy, and it is us. Or at least, Not just us.

Using a personal trope—Beck is a recovering alcoholic—he likened the Republican Party’s big-spending habit to the appetite of a drinker who can’t stop himself. He also indulged in a daring bit of palimpsest, rewriting one Ronald Reagan’s most memorable lines: “It is still morning in America. It just happens to be kind of a head-pounding, hungover, vomiting-for-four-hours kind of morning in America.” Not bad. Beck may not be the first repentant Republican, but he is certainly the most operatic, a kind of comic Pavarotti of the right.

Peter Beinart: Nonsense at CPACChristopher Buckley: Quit Redefining ConservatismWatch CPAC’s Most Outrageous MomentsIt’s perhaps worth noting that last year’s CPAC keynoter was Rush Limbaugh, who, like Beck, is in recovery. What is it, one wonders, about these two bigfoot thunderers on the right that they share this personal history? Whatever else, it is a humanizing trait, and on Saturday night, it allowed Beck to be frisky and have fun, as he taunted Republicans, urging them to come clean themselves about their own recent boozing. If the Republican Party, he noted, had given a Tiger Woods-type apologia, he’d go all out for it. (Not, really, that he already hasn’t.)

The other encouraging surprise of the conference was the concluding straw poll. Ron Paul came in first, with 31 percent, to Mitt Romney’s 22 percent and—hallelujah—happily meager Sarah Palin’s 7 percent.

Thirty-one percent is, to be sure, several bricks shy of a landslide. It may, really, amount to a “none of the above.” Aside from his borderline-kooky isolationism, there are appealing aspects to Dr. Paul. (He is, in addition to being a Texas congressman, an Air Force flight surgeon and OB-GYN who has delivered 4,000 babies over the years; some politicians kiss babies, this one actually brings them into the world.) But he is never going to be president. That at least will free him up to go on being authentic, a quality in short supply among our pols.

So what’s the takeaway from CPAC 2010? Only this: It’s going to be messy between now and November, but conservatives are, for better or worse, fired up and ready to go. Funny—the phrase sounds vaguely familiar. Where can I have heard it before?

Christopher Buckley's books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and is editor-at-large of ForbesLife magazine. His new book is Losing Mum and Pup, a memoir. Buckley's Daily Beast column is the winner of an Online Journalism Award in the category of Online Commentary.