WASHINGTON -- This is not a great time to be a young conservative.
Democrats control both houses of Congress. Barack Obama won the youth vote in a landslide and became a new cultural icon in the process. Republicans can hardly scrape together a bunch of the party's current leaders without falling back on the guys who ran the GOP show 15 years ago. The National Review, that former bastion of conservative thought, can't even figure out how to race-bait Sonia Sotomayor properly.
So it wasn't that much of a surprise to see that the crowd at the annual College Republican National Committee convention downtown Friday was a little subdued. A ballroom that might have been packed during the Bush years had plenty of space for the kids to stretch out in during speeches. An exhibit hall outside had only a few tables, hawking the usual wares from GOP allies like the National Rifle Association, and pamphlets on "Leftist Indoctrination in American Colleges" and "Affirmative Action: The New Discrimination" from a group calling itself "Youth for Western Civilization." (The latter pamphlet cheerfully informed me, as I flipped through it, that "while inequality might have existed back [in the 1960s], the level playing field is quite equal right now.") It was like a soft-core version of CPAC, the massive conservative summit held every February, also in Washington.
College Republicans have a long history of grooming the next generation of GOP operatives; Karl Rove got his start as the group's executive director in the early 1970s. So they drew some big names to address the crowd, even if the crowd wasn't that big. Sen. John McCain spoke to the group in the morning, as well as Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who might just be interested in running for another job in three years, will speak tonight at a gala.
As I walked in to pay the group a visit, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was midway through a stemwinder of a speech, telling the young conservatives that only their family and their church would help steer them through the liberal wilderness. "That's it, that's all we have," he said. Right about then, a College Republican flunky insisted I turn off my tape recorder for some reason. Fortunately, he didn't try to grab my notebook as I jotted down some quotes. "[Obama] doesn't want strong churches fighting against him!" Santorum railed, laying out a conspiratorial reason that the administration is proposing caps on charitable donations. Even Head Start was a liberal plot in Santorum's world. "He wants children to be educated at age 3 -- pull 'em out of the house!" he shouted. "Let the government teach them what's really true."
The next panel had the promising title of "Operation Waiting Game," which had me imagining a masterful College Republican plot to get through the Obama years by simply... waiting. But it turned out to be a fairly dry presentation on a campaign the group is trying to run to convince young voters that universal health care will mean long waits to see doctors. Even the young Republicans didn't seem to want to stick around to hear about it; they filtered back into the hallway to chat each other up instead.
Being a Republican is "certainly not popular on college campuses these days," admitted Christina Aiuto, 21, the vice chairwoman of the University of Central Florida College Republicans chapter. She was raised in "a Christian family" and has always been interested in socially conservative values -- and politics. As a teenager, she told me, she used to make her dad take her to county commissioner meetings. Her group brought eight students to D.C. this week; at CPAC, where big conservative political organizations pay students' way, they had more than 20. "It's more frustrating than discouraging, because we see the way the country's going -- we obviously don't agree with it, and I think it sort of scares us, because we feel like our hands are sort of tied."
The frustrated conservatives might have a chance to let loose a little on Saturday night, at a big bash that organizers titled "The Young and the Restless." But a note on the group's Web site reminded underage conservatives of yet another example of the heavy hand of the state: "Only 21+ will be allowed to drink. Soft drinks will be available for those who are not of age." It's probably Obama's fault -- after all, isn't everything these days?