Razor-tongued right-wing darling Michelle Malkin stood before a cheering crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference Saturday and denounced George Bush's new immigration policy. Her voice oozing contempt, she described Bush as "Clintonian" for claiming to oppose amnesty in his State of the Union speech. She held up an orange sign with Bush's words, "I oppose amnesty," written on it. Then she ripped it up and roared, "What part of amnesty doesn't he understand?"
This year's CPAC, an annual conference that's ground zero of the vast right-wing conspiracy, pulsated with the usual antipathy toward liberals, gays, secular judges, environmentalists and Europeans. Yet many attendees also bristled with a more uneasy anger, one directed at their erstwhile allies in the White House. Conservative activists, especially older ones, felt betrayed and disappointed by Bush's immigration policy, his expansion of the federal government and his promiscuous spending, so much so that some suggested the grass-roots right might stay home on Election Day. There were plenty of passionate Bush fans in attendance, most of them college students, but movement leaders and veterans spoke of them with outright contempt. One right-wing pollster called them "Bushlickers."
This year's CPAC, in fact, was more encouraging for liberals than conservatives. Bush's right-wing base is demanding more concessions than he's made so far, but those concessions are likely to erode whatever moderate support the president has. At one of the most fervently Republican gatherings in the country, it wasn't hard to find people who were planning to vote for third-party candidates from the Constitution or Libertarian parties, and a few even confided in whispers that they might vote for Joe Lieberman or John Edwards if given a chance. The mood was like that of liberals in 2000 who saw Al Gore as nothing more than a lesser evil and yearned to send a futile message through Ralph Nader. While the grass-roots left is more motivated and disciplined than it's ever been, the grass-roots right has turned sullen and uncompromising.
"A lot of people here don't care if Bush wins or not," said Rick Shaftan, a right-wing political consultant and pollster based in New Jersey.
That's good news for Democrats, because few people care more about conservative politics than CPAC attendees. Organized by the American Conservative Union, CPAC is a three-day conference that brings together the leaders of the American right with their most passionate foot soldiers. This year, around 4,000 people gathered at a Marriott in Crystal City, Va., outside of Washington, to hear speakers including Vice President Dick Cheney, neo-McCarthyite Ann Coulter, veteran anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Iran-Contra veteran Oliver North.
Coulter offered a salutary reminder of how the right really feels about "political hate speech," telling a cheering crowd of hundreds that the Democrats' key constituency consists of "breathtakingly stupid women." She declared, "You can never be too scandalous in talking about liberals. These people are animals; they want to destroy the country and they support the Taliban and al-Qaida the way they supported Stalin in McCarthy's day." Oliver North, the Iran-Contra conspirator, was equally magnanimous, making a joke about journalists killed covering Iraq. "Seventeen war correspondents were killed," he said. "That's unusual. Usually war correspondents are just injured and become casualties when they fall off their egos and land on their IQs." Meanwhile, a company called Star Spangled Ice Cream, a right-wing answer to Ben and Jerry's, handed out samples of "I Hate the French Vanilla" and vendors sold "Bring Back the Blacklist" mugs and "Dean People Suck" buttons.
Yet all the fervent vituperation couldn't hide the widespread feeling of disillusionment. At last year's CPAC, worship for the president was almost cultlike -- people festooned themselves with T-shirts and buttons bearing his face and bought up George Bush mouse pads, mugs and handbags. The same merchandise was for sale this year, but it wasn't moving as swiftly. By Saturday, Bush baseball caps had been marked down from $15 to $3.
"There's concern over what Bush is doing, no question," said Donald Devine, vice chairman of the American Conservative Union and former director of the Office of Personnel Management in the Reagan administration. "He's increased domestic spending more than any recent president. I don't think it's turned into voting against Bush. It may show up in terms of turnout. In the past, that's hurt Republicans."
Indeed, that's why Shaftan, a Jewish Manhattan native wearing a Confederate flag tie under his gray suit, said he wouldn't bet on Bush in the coming election. "If I still gambled, I would not say he's the favorite," he said.
A recent Newsweek poll says the same thing, with 52 percent of voters wanting to see Bush defeated in the 2004 election. Even more significantly, the poll shows fewer people passionately support Bush than passionately oppose him -- while 37 percent of respondents said they strongly want to see Bush reelected, 47 percent strongly do not.
"Some people are upset that Bush himself didn't come," said Foster Lowe, Republican co-chairman of Little Ferry, N.J. Lowe and Shaftan were standing with a group of New Jersey Republicans, all of them griping about the president. "We're the base, and there's an undercurrent of unhappiness," Lowe said. "Last year, everyone was super-excited."
Shaftan looked at Lowe and said, "Where's your 'W' sticker?"
"I don't know," Lowe shrugged, adding that he has one on his car.
"Everyone here should be having five Bush stickers on," said Shaftan. "In '84, it was a Reagan lovefest. People had 12 stickers." Now, he said, "I don't sense any great deal of enthusiasm." Republican leaders, he said, "are all fat and lazy and thinking they can't lose. These guys are just very arrogant. They think, 'What are they going to do, vote for Kerry?'"
"Don't tell me I have nowhere else to go," said Steven Lonegan, the Republican mayor of Bogota, N.J., speaking of feeling insulted by an administration that takes conservatives for granted.
Shaftan knew that the opposition was crackling with energy, and that worried him, because he sees the activists as the key to victory. "When I get all the whackos together and they're all juiced up, I always win," he said. "Bush treats everybody here like we're all a bunch of nuts."
"I've polled on this guy, and I can't believe how weak his numbers are," Shaftan continued. "Have you talked to anyone here who defends Bush? It's only people under 25." He pumped his fist and grunted mockingly, "Bush the man!"
Of course, there were plenty of people at CPAC willing to defend Bush. Grover Norquist, powerful right-wing strategist and president of Americans for Tax Reform, said that "economic conservatives should be delighted" with Bush because of his tax cuts. Among the college students, there was still enormous enthusiasm for the war in Iraq -- the fervor was so great that some, like 18-year-old John Bascom, had even briefly considered joining the military. (Why did he decide against it? "I didn't think I was the right type of person," he explained.) And social conservatives were largely pleased that Bush had nodded toward a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in his State of the Union speech.
Introducing Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, right-wing radio host Armstrong Williams said: "I am so proud of the president. I'm so impressed by what he said, that marriage is between a man and a woman. Howard Dean says God spoke to him about same-sex marriage. My only question is, what God is that? Definitely not the God we serve."
Chao gave a speech in which she tried to rile the crowd against the growing threat of nongovernmental organizations, which she said are working to "promote global social and cultural values." NGOs, she warned, "should be at the top of every conservative watch list." She didn't mention which NGOs she was talking about, but she did give an example of their nefarious influence. One of them, apparently, filed a friend of the court brief in Lawrence vs. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court case that ruled anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional. One of the judges in the case, Chao said, "relied on research supplied by this NGO to justify his support for this new constitutional right."
Chao's speech probably resonated with the significant faction of CPAC attendees for whom sodomy is the most urgent issue facing the nation. (The group Bascom belongs to, the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, put out a flier comparing the Lawrence decision to Sept. 11). Ultimately, though, she failed to deflect the attendees' anger away from the administration and onto villains like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
That anger was focused on Bush's economic policies and his expansion of entitlements. At a panel titled "GOP Success: Is it Destroying the Conservative Movement?" Devine said, "I'm probably going to end up voting for George Bush, but let's not kid ourselves." He then listed presidents -- including Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter -- who were better than Bush on domestic spending. "The bottom-line fact," Devine concluded, "is they're not going in the right direction." The crowd applauded.
Surprisingly, factions of the movement with very different agendas shared this sentiment. Even as Bush's runaway spending and expanding deficits infuriated small-government libertarians, his immigration proposal outraged right-wing populists who want the government to intervene to protect American workers.
After Malkin spoke, it fell to Daniel Griswold from the libertarian CATO Institute to defend Bush's immigration policy against a furious audience. His laissez-faire argument about matching willing workers and employers met with only tepid applause. He was followed by Schlafly, whose denunciation of the downward pressure on wages caused by globalization won standing ovations. "It's a terrible betrayal of American workers to make us compete with cheap labor from the rest of the world," she cried while the crowd cheered. Suddenly, the lower-middle-class rage that Republicans have so effectively deflected toward supercilious elites and parasitic minorities was turning back on the GOP.
Shaftan has seen the same thing. "I was in Arkansas, in a bar with a big Confederate flag on the wall," he said. It was full of good old boys, none of them fans of Clinton, who had turned on the president. They told Shaftan, "Fuck Bush. The economy sucks and he's letting all the damn wetbacks in."
Typically, Republicans facing this kind of populist anger divert it with a culture war, and several speakers suggested that's what we'll see this year. Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, gave a speech in which he accused supporters of gay marriage of "religious bigotry," saying, "Those who say I must turn my back on the tenets of my faith in order to be accepted by them are the ones who are intolerant."
Later, at a panel called "Previewing the 2004 Elections," Jeff Bell, a lobbyist who pushed for Bush's 2001 tax cuts and his faith-based initiatives, acknowledged that the upcoming election was going to be a rough fight. "Democrats are wising up," he said. "They're not going to be the sitting ducks that Max Cleland and others were in 2002," referring to the former Georgia Democratic senator who lost three limbs in Vietnam but was nonetheless tarred as a traitor by Republicans.
When it looked like Howard Dean was going to be the nominee, Bell said, Republicans "didn't have to worry about the base and the base's morale." But he worried that Kerry or Edwards would pose bigger challenges. "To keep his base exercised the president will have to bite the bullet and come out for specific measures to preserve traditional marriage," said Bell.
That will oblige the people at the Traditional Values coalition, who, as part of their anti-gay marriage display, had a woman dressed as a bride serving wedding cake. The group's chairman, Rev. Lou Sheldon, sees gay marriage as a sign of approaching apocalypse, saying, "Babylon is symbolic of promiscuity, hedonism and homosexuality." Sheldon says he has a weekly conference call with the White House about the issue, and is confident that the president will respond to grass-roots pressure.
It's unclear, though, if that will be enough to satisfy those disappointed with the administration in so many other ways. "The only way I'd vote for Bush," said Jeffrey Becker, a 41-year-old engineer from West Virginia, "is if Hillary got in the race."