Party at Sea

Fear and Loathing at the Republican Leadership Conference

It bills itself as the first stop on the road to the White House, but many GOP players skipped the New Orleans confab. Enough were there, however, to show a party at war with itself.

To the right of the entrance inside the exhibit hall at the Republican Leadership Conference, a semi-annual gathering of conservative activists in New Orleans, is a shooting range. To the left is a T-shirt stand.

The gun range is nothing alarming—a plastic contraption with a toy pistol aiming at a series of targets a few feet away. It is there to drum up interest in a political polling business setting up shop in the hall and seems to be fulfilling its purpose. On the first afternoon of the three-day confab, as guests are still strolling in, the booth already has attracted a crowd.

“Pretend they’re Democrats, Margaret!” one man shouts to his wife, who is decked out in a red cowboy hat and American flag scarf.

Across the way, the T-shirt booth seems to be doing fine, too, selling tops with slogans like “When Is It My Turn to Be Offended?” and “NEVER Apologize for Being an American.”

“Isn’t that wonderful?” says Jan Hamming, a 70-year-old tax administrator from western Michigan, holding up a black tank top bearing the image of an assault rife and the words “I don’t call 9/11.”

Small and slight, she looks nothing like the media’s idea of a gun nut but says she grew up on farm in Michigan and is a lifetime member of the NRA. And she has driven, with her husband, 1,100 miles to be here. “The situation with our government has just gotten so bad,” she says. The RLC advertises itself as the first stop on the road to 2016, and Hamming is here to be appealed to. She likes Donald Trump, “a conservative, Christian family man,” but wants to hear more from everyone.

“I work in a good, family-oriented, Christian company,” she says. “That’s why it works. Everybody who is there wants to be there.”

“No unions!” her husband chimes in.

Asked why 1,500 conservative activists are hunkering down in the basement ballrooms of the Riverside Hilton for the event, Hamming says, “To rally the troops.”

It is as good an answer as any. Although the RLC, which ran May 29-31, sees itself as the 2016 campaign’s first stop, most of the GOP’s heavy hitters for 2016 kept their distance. There was no Jeb Bush, no Rand Paul, no Marco Rubio, no Scott Walker, no Paul Ryan, no Chris Christie, no Mike Huckabee. There were a few legitimate contenders, such as Rick Perry and Ted Cruz, but the roster was filled mostly with the fringes of even the conservative movement.

Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the Duck Dynasty family and franchise, who became a hero to the right after he was nearly drummed off the air for wondering aloud about the relative merits of homosexual versus heterosexual sex, was honored with a keynote speaking slot. Indicted author Dinesh D’Souza was a “Surprise Guest.” Shaun McCutcheon, the businessman who sued in order to rip apart the last vestiges of the campaign finance system, served as an MC. Members of Congress including Allan West, Louie Gohmert, and Steve King—who made the case that Hillary Clinton lied about Benghazi—were there, too, as were ghosts of presidential races, such as Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain, who hinted that he was looking to run again after his last race cratered so spectacularly. Michele Bachmann, a soon-to-be ex-member of Congress and a failed presidential candidate in her own right, bailed out at the last minute.

Part of the confusion was perhaps baked in. The Republican Leadership Conference was at one time the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. It dropped the geographic distinction, I was told by a conference official, in order to avoid seeming like a party of the old, white and narrow-minded, and also to avoid leaving its home base of New Orleans and rotate locations around the South. Another group had then booted up under the old name, leading to confusion about which southern conservative get-together was which.

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But if the origins were unclear, so was much of the point of the gathering.

“I will let you know when I found out,” said Johnnie Williams, 68, a retired Army vet who fled Louisiana for Florida after Katrina, when asked why he was attending. “I suppose it’s because I was invited.”

The gathering arrived at a time when the conservative movement is as unsure of itself as it has been in at least the last five years, and perhaps even longer. The Tea Party, at least as an electoral force, seems to have run its course, tallying up a string of defeats from Oregon to New Jersey. In some cases, Tea Partiers have upended establishment opponents only to embarrass themselves, and conservatives, on a bigger stage.

Next door, in Mississippi, the Tea Party is trying to make a last stand by knocking off Thad Cochran, a genteel 76-year-old incumbent, with Chris McDaniel, a conservative commentator three decades Cochran’s junior who all but promised to bring the U.S. Senate to its knees. Closer to home, in Louisiana, Rep. Bill Cassidy seemed to have a decent chance of defeating Democrat Mary Landrieu in November’s Senate race. A pesky state lawmaker named Rob Maness, however, has refused to drop out of the primary, despite entreaties from no less a party statesman than Trump, who was prowling around the Hilton for part of the RLC. “My advice is, prior to the election, you gotta get these people together. You can’t have somebody taking 8 percent of the vote who’s a conservative,” Trump told the press. “I know you think you’re going to take that 8 percent and win an election, but that’s not what history shows.”

Still Maness soldiered on, appearing with Sarah Palin just as the convention was getting started, in an upstairs room at the hotel at a rally, where he began to get weepy as he described a nation that was without the red state/blue state divide—a notion that was, of course, popularized by Barack Obama, but one that also, on this occasion at least, got Palin crying, too.

It was hard not to get mixed messages from the rostrum, too. One minute Republican National Committee chairman Reince Preibus would be on stage, lamenting that the party had split in two—“We have a midterm party that doesn’t lose, and we have a presidential party that’s having a hard time winning”—and calling the series of debates in 2012 that helped launched Bachmann and Cain “a traveling circus.”

The next minute, Bobby Jindal would come on stage, accusing President Obama of an “assault on religious liberty,” comparing the Common Core education standards to New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s attempted soda ban, and calling Obama a redistributionist whose policies would create “an American nightmare.”

Then it would be Phil Robertson’s turn, haranguing the audience to get right with God and urging that the Bible be taught in schools to bring down the crime rate. Ron Johnson, a one-time Tea Party senator from Wisconsin, would come next, sounding like he had seen the light.

“I think the conservative movement may just be maturing a little bit. You can be very doctrinaire, you can demand purity, but in the end if you want to advance policy that you want enacted, you have to win elections,” he said, adding what sounded like a slight dig at the Duck family: “If you start out bombastic, if you start out with conspiracies, they aren’t going to listen to you.”

On and on it went, for hours on end, one side urging conservatives to throw the impure out of the temple, the other advocating for a bigger tent to defeat the Democrats.

In the evening, there would be a brief détente. The audience retired to the bar, or to fundraising reception. On one side of the hotel there was a “Seersucker Soiree,” hosted by the Louisiana Federation of College Republicans. A jazz band played. The beer flowed freely. Allan West and Herman Cain stopped by and stuck around. Across the way there was a concert by the Christian rock band Kutless. Five sweaty guys powered through a number of guitar ballads, and the convention hall that had hosted the great debates over the future of the nation was now given over to someone singing, “Everybody falls sometimes / Gotta find the strength to rise / From the ashes / And make a new beginning.” There was no booze, but save for the college seersucker crowd, delegates of all stripes were there, young and old, swaying to the beat.