Hershey, PA — The theme of the Republican retreat was “America’s new Congress,” but from speakers to the panels, the tone was more retro than advertised.
Think: “I Love the 2000s: GOP retreat edition.”
Republicans haven’t held both chambers of Congress in a decade—so in the first few weeks of the new Congress, they opted for a blast from the past, holding their first joint House-Senate retreat since 2005.
There was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, best known to Americans for his partnership with
President George W. Bush during the early days of the Global War on Terror, who spoke about the need for the United States to take a forceful stance against terrorism.
And comedian Jay Leno, who reached the pinnacle of his success in the early- to mid-2000s, performed Wednesday evening with a standup comedy routine. He was very funny, said a GOP aide who did not want to be identified.
There were other hints of nostalgia: Perma-GOP panelist Frank Lunz was there, as was Bush-Cheney pollster Alex Castellanos, who also did polling for Mitt Romney; so was pollster David Winston, who has been advising Congressional leaders since the mid-2000s.
“On the whole these [retreats] tend to be really conventional… they don’t tend to be really cutting edge,” said attendee April Ponnuru, a former GOP leadership aide and current conservative activist who was attending the retreat. “I’m guessing Democrats aren’t doing anything different.”
“There may be something to that,” said Ramesh Ponnuru, April’s husband, on the idea of the retreat being dominated by Republicans who had their heyday in the 2000s. He doesn’t think the trend applies to him—he spoke at the retreat—though he did rise to become a senior editor for National Review in the 2000s. “It’s a mix of old and new faces.”
But lest you get the impression that Republicans were merely bringing in an old cast to discuss their coming plans for Congress, they did schedule a session on young, millennial voters—by the 63-year- old Neil Howe, the demographer who helped coin the term ‘millenials.’
But the nostalgia for administrations past isn’t just in Hershey, it appears to be permeating conservatives across the country as the Obama administration enters its final two years.
As former Gov. Mitt Romney (first elected in 2002) contemplated his third presidential run over the holidays, the Republican National Committee sold an “I miss W.” shirt and a cowboy hat honoring Vice President Dick Cheney. The hat sold out in just two days, according to the RNC.
And riffing off George H.W. Bush’s penchant for wearing colorful socks, the RNC sold flashy official footwear for $35 a pair. The promotion brought in $3 million to date, Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski told the Beast, making it “probably the best selling political item ever” and bringing in over 20,000 new donors to the RNC.
One retreat organizer pushed back on the notion that Republican leaders were merely reminiscing about the past.
“They’re not sitting around and talking about the ‘90s, they’re taking their experiences and talking about the current situation,” said a Republican aide. “They’re all looking forward on how we can move forward together on our new House majority, our new Senate majority.”
Sen. John Cornyn’s livetweeted former PM Blair’s address, and with the exception of comments about Syria, much of it could have been comfortable delivered a decade ago.
“Israel’s security is our security,” Blair said, according to Cornyn’s account. “Disengagement is no option on terrorism… If they’re aren’t fought the grow; if not confronted, they overcome.”
AEI president Arthur Brooks, pollster Charlie Cook and columnists John Fund, Peggy Noonan and Kim Strassel also spoke at the Republican retreat.
But one element of the Republican retreat remained timeless: reporters were cordoned off in a closed restaurant away from the Republican confab, and not allowed to listen in on the event’s various speeches.
“Do they not allow you out?” chuckled a member of the Republican Congressional leadership.
In the afternoon, security cordoned off the hallway connecting the restaurant to the rooms where lawmakers were meeting.
"Retreats are always like this, they’re closed to the press,” said a Republican aide. “We provide [the press] with as much access as we can, given their schedule.”
Asawin Suebsaeng contributed to this report.