On Friday evening, conservatives and Occupy forces talked trash outside the Conservative Political Action Committee conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C. To my right stood two Occupy soldiers, Michael and Mo, both African-American, shouting slogans about the 1 percent. To my left, a cluster of jacket-and-tied CPAC men shouted sound bites about freedom In between them stood a line of grim-looking, blue-suited officers of the Metropolitan Police Department, both white and African-American, quite possibly thinking, These people are nuts.
Both sides came equipped for a war of words. Michael is a young Iraq war vet from Alaska who once admired George W. Bush, and is now an Occupier par excellence. He offered the high-decibel insight that "The system has failed!" Standing next to him, Mo, a big guy and a regular at the now-evicted OccupyDC camp, shouted, "The 1 percent are using you guys."
"The 1 percent?" a CPAC man volleyed back. "God bless 'em. What's wrong with making money?"
Another CPAC-er tossed this verbal firecracker: "Just because you've failed, doesn't mean the system's failed."
That was rich, the Occupiers thought. Michael had done a tour of duty in Iraq -- probably one more than the CPAC man had done. Mo was personally offended. "I haven't failed," he said, his face crinkling up at the insulting assumption. "I have a job." He shook his head and turned away like: There's no talking to these people. And the CPAC gang turned away, no doubt thinking: There's no talking to these people.
The CPAC cluster hungrily took up the chant of "Steak! Steak! Steak!" Occupiers replied with a mocking chant of "White power! White power! White power!" And so the confrontation dissolved.
"Truth on our side"
But inside the big hotel, there was no such failure of communication. Several thousand energized, if anxious, conservative activists launched themselves into the 2012 presidential campaign with a display of divisions -- but also an unmistakable resolve to end the presidency of Barack Obama by any legal means necessary. Their mood was upbeat, and barely shaken by the falling unemployment rate and the president's recent uptick in the polls.
"You ever notice how liberals always have a scowl on their face?" asked Jim Jordan, a Tea Party congressman from Ohio. A four-time high-school wrestling champion, Jordan did not look like a 1 percent type of guy. He spoke from the podium without a jacket. He was all big ears and muscles to go with his 5 o'clock shadow and yellow tie. "Conservatives are more positive because we've got truth on our side," he said with a smile.
But here's the truth: The assembled activists were having a devil of time trying to figure out who should lead their cause against Obama, the mild-mannered former law professor whom these people tend to regard as a tyrant. On the first day of the conference, my sense was that a plurality favored former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum for president. Almost as many touted Mitt Romney as the most electable candidate; Newt Gingrich partisans were harder to come by. (The Ron Paul campaign decamped to the Maine caucuses, which Romney won Saturday in a squeaker.)
In a panel discussion in the main ballroom, respected conservative elders spoke frankly. "How many of you out there have mocked President Obama's call for hope and change with a friend or in your group," ask pollster Scott Rasmussen. "Come on, how many of you have done that?"
A lot of hands went up.
"Well, that's stupid," he barked. "In the last three elections, people have voted against the party in power; voters are looking for hope and change in 2012 as much as in 2008. You ought to be encouraging Republican candidates to offer that positive step forward."
This was a crowd unified by the incantation of Ronald Reagan's name and an inexhaustible fondness for Obama teleprompter jokes. They overwhelmingly favor cutting government spending, oppose any kind of taxation, reject abortion and, I get the impression, favor limiting the availability of birth control.
They are most divided on the issue of illegal immigration. The one moment of true anger I saw during the conference came during an immigration panel discussion when a libertarian speaker asserted that undocumented immigrants were as law-abiding and hardworking as Americans. There was booing, and someone in the crowd shouted, "That's bullshit!"
One of the panel speakers was Robert Vandervoort, the executive director of a group called Pro-English. As Salon reported last week, Vandervoort was one of three invited CPAC speakers with a history of white supremacist activities. He restricted his remarks to the cause of making English the official language of the United States.
A third speaker on the panel was Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, an advisor to the Romney campaign and the author of anti-illegal immigrant laws recently enacted in Arizona, Alabama and South Carolina. Kobach told me afterward that he "abhorred racism." Just because he appeared on a panel with Vandervoort, he said, didn't mean that he shared his views.
When it came to immigration policy, Kobach said he had no problem with Romney's oft-derided use of the term "self-deportation." He said that Romney, if elected president, would pursue a policy of "attrition through enforcement" that would make life so unpleasant for the undocumented and their families that they would voluntarily leave. Kobach said he was not satisfied with the Obama administration's deportation policy that has removed a million people from the United States in three years. A "sensible" immigration policy, he said, could reduce the resident population of 11 million undocumented immigrants in American by 50 percent by 2016.
A pledge to forcibly remove 5.5 million people, most of them Latino, from their homes may not be the most attractive election-year message for the fastest-growing demographic group in the American electorate, but it seems that is now the Republican front-runner's declared position.
When Brad Bailey of Nassau Bay, Texas, overheard Kobach's recommendation, he scoffed, "That guy never met a payroll." Bailey is one of those pro-immigration Republicans whose views are heard less often these days. He says he has employed dozens of immigrants at his two seafood restaurants over the last 25 years and regards them as hardworking and God-fearing people. Of the undocumented workers in America, he said, "They're not going home. America is their home." Bailey says the anti-illegal immigration groups should not be trusted because they are in cahoots with Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club.
But, for all these hints of nativism, I did not discern an obvious racial animus among many attendees. "Is this a racist crowd?" I asked African-American talk radio host Pudgy Miller. "No," he said. I put the same question to Kevin Daniels, who runs a black Christian conservative group called the Frederick Douglass Foundation in North Carolina. His left eyebrow rose about a millimeter, and he shrugged. "I just don't see it." (I was going to write that Daniels was positively Obama-ian in his self-control, but he might not take it as a compliment.)
The bottom line is that the willingness of CPAC leaders to invite the likes of Vandervoort indicates a tolerance for racist discourse. And Daniels' reading of American politics ("liberal government as the new slavery") strikes me as a profound misreading of African-American history. But when I saw the crowd cheering Herman Cain as he proclaimed yet again the virtues of his budget-busting 9-9-9 plan, it seemed to me that "racist" is not a useful term for describing the CPAC rank and file.
Perhaps the hottest topic of conversation was the Obama administration's decision last week to require that birth control be part of the basic coverage provided by any health insurer under the Affordable Care Act. When they spoke at CPAC on Friday, all three of the leading presidential candidates denounced the decision as an attack on the religious liberty of Catholic institutions that have non-Catholic employees. All pledged to repeal the national health insurance scheme they call "Obama-care."
The most revealing remarks came in the candidates' respective pitches to the assembled. When Santorum asked, "Why would an undecided voter vote for a candidate who the party is not excited about?" he said what a lot of people in the room were thinking.
"I'm the only candidate who has never worked in Washington," Romney boasted two hours later. In promising to be "severely conservative," he drew repeated applause and refuted the cruel observation of National Review's Jonah Goldberg: "A Romney speech is like Mr. Spock reading a love letter." At CPAC, Romney sounded more like Captain Kirk reading a love letter.
Later in the day, Newt Gingrich arranged to be introduced by his overly enthusiastic wife, Callista — a big mistake in this venue. "Home wrecker," hissed more than one woman in the crowd as Gingrich's well-coiffed mistress-turned-wife sang the praises of the man she hopes to propel to the Oval Office by sheer force of hairdo. Her husband honked out his pitch that he would be the "paycheck president" who could beat the "food stamp president." He drew some cheers, but a serial adulterer was not going to wow this strait-laced crowd.
Deep in the hotel's hospitality suites, Santorum mobilized what might be called the Republican counter-establishment. These are the evangelical and Tea Party leaders who are struggling for control of the Republican Party with its traditional moneyed elite, now led by the likes of Karl Rove and Roger Ailes of Fox News (who arguably embody the power of the 1 percent more than the CPAC crowd).
The candidate huddled with conservative movement leaders at a private luncheon hosted by ConservativeHQ.com chairman Richard Viguerie, according to the Wall Street Journal. Viguerie, a prolific fundraiser and one of the founding fathers of the American right:
...set the tone of the meeting by reminding the attendees that, based on who had won what in the Republican primaries so far, one of four people was going to be president after November 2012: Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum, and that of the four, Rick Santorum was the one reliable conservative left in the race.
By the end of the three-day conference, Santorum's supporters dominated the hotel lobby where the partisans of the various candidate handed out signs and talked up their heroes. Becky Barker, a 20-year-old college student from Gaithersburg, Md., who hopes to become a historian and stay-at-home mother, told me she was excited about the prospect of working on a Santorum campaign in the fall, mostly because of his pro-life views. "If it comes down to Romney," she allowed, "I'll hold my nose and vote for him."
"Santorum is not a reluctant conservative," said Tim LeFever, a real estate broker and evangelical leader active in campaigns against gay rights in California. "Ideally we would combine his strength with the infrastructure of Romney with the debating ability of Newt."
This was a defensive crowd, touchy about the slights of the "lamestream media" and irked by the Occupy movement's claim that they are somehow part of the 1 percent. When I asked Rusty Humphries, a popular talk-radio host from Atlanta, what he thought the conservative movement's biggest problem was going into 2012, he shook his head, "Our image. They're doing a very good job with that 1 percent thing. It's all lies but it works."
In his podium appearance, Andrew Breitbart, the movement's brash, factually challenged guerrilla videographer, said he wasn't worried by the lack of agreement on the best presidential candidate. "Ask not what your candidate can do for you," he shouted. "Ask what you can do for your candidate. That's the Tea Party."
Breitbart went on to tell a funny story about having dinner with former radical activist Bill Ayres ("He's an excellent cook"), which mutated into a less-than-convincing conspiracy theory about how the real purpose of the anti-Vietnam War movement was to deliver Barack Obama (then an 8-year-old living with his mother in Indonesia) into the White House where he could betray America and steal your money. It was more entertaining than persuasive.
"Put them in plastic bags"
The conference closed on a more substantive note Saturday afternoon when Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader and conservative movement's most influential strategist, took the stage. More than any other person, Norquist is responsible for the no-tax orthodoxy of today's Republican Party. Looking and sounding like a football coach offering a pep talk to his team before a big game, Norquist mixed unabashed confidence with realistic talk about the difficulties of achieving victory. He used both data and violent imagery to rally his team against what he called the "coercive utopians" of the Obama administration.
Norquist boasted that only five of the 50 states raised taxes in 2011, and he talked tough about how to deal with those who oppose the conservative agenda. "As for the trial lawyers," he said, "let's put them in plastic bags and take them down to the river."
That unfunny remark crystallized a thought I'd had for three days. If the CPAC army is strong on authentic conviction, they are weak on democratic self-awareness. Based on what I saw and heard at CPAC, an undecided voter might conclude that American conservatives in 2012 oppose taxing the rich to reduce the deficit, seek to limit women's access to birth control, promise to forcibly expel 5.5 million mostly law-abiding people from their homes, and are led by a man who occasionally talks like Tony Soprano. Some Americans might be attracted to that package. But even some conservatives will pause. And the center? It's not just liberals who may be put off by that agenda.
But none could doubt the movement's swagger when Norquist fine-tuned his newest talking point about Mitt Romney. He predicted that the leadership of the conservative movement for the next 20 years will emanate from Congress, not the White House (a likely development for which Democrats seem unprepared).
"We're not auditioning for someone to tell us what to do," he declared. "We know what to do. We just need a president who can sign the legislation that the Republican House and Senate pass. … We don’t need someone to think. … We need someone who knows how to hold a pen."
Warming to the idea of Mitt Romney as their obedient servant, the CPAC crowd gave Norquist a standing ovation.
Then came the much-anticipated straw poll results. The crowd gasped when it was announced that Romney won 39 percent of the votes of 3,400-plus conference participants, edging Santorum (who had 31 percent) and leaving Gingrich far behind (20 percent). The Romney contingent cheered mightily while Santorum's supporters brayed in dismay.
"Romney dodged a bullet," Tony Katz, a Los Angeles talk-radio host with a stylish L.A. haircut, told me in the hotel bar afterward. "If Santorum had won, he would have capped off an unbelievable week where he won three states he wasn't expected to win, and he raised $3 million. If he won the straw poll, he would have had talking points until the Arizona debate [scheduled for Feb. 22]. Now Romney has the talking points."
There was one notable footnote buried in the poll data. While the straw poll of CPAC participants found 99 percent disapproval of Obama's job performance, a national poll of self-identified conservatives conducted by CPAC last week found a remarkable 19 percent approve of the job President Obama is doing.
Is it really possible that one in five conservatives nationwide thinks Obama is doing an OK job as president? If that finding is not an outlier, the conservative highlights of the Obama presidency — the reliance on Wall Street executives, the faith in bipartisanship, the killing of Osama bin Laden — may be winning him undetected support deep in enemy territory.
The conference closed with an address by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, now the spiritual den mother of the conservative movement. As she bleated her way through a predictable speech lamenting that President Obama transformed "the shining city on a hill" to a "sinking ship," a group of college students stood up in the darkened ballroom and started shouting "mic check!" They were immediately drowned out by booing and a Palin-led chant of "USA! USA! USA!" As the security men hustled the kids out through the hotel's marble lobby, they held up fists of solidarity while bystanders shouted "Loser!" and "Get a job!"
On the sidewalk outside, the group of 15 fresh-faced students from American University, Georgetown and other local colleges, resumed their mic check. Jacob Hope, a history and politics double major, read excerpts from OccupyDC's statement of principles calling for "a more democratic, just and sustainable world." Aiming his remarks at the people inside the hotel, he added, "Before you vilify, hear our declaration."
The students' mic check included the claim, "We have been captives of a corrupt economic and political system for far too long," a sentiment voiced by many CPAC speakers. But what is the source of the corruption of American democracy? That is the question that divides America into its red and blue territories.
For the CPAC crowd, that corruption originates exclusively with secular liberals and anyone else who believes in governmental action for the common good. For the Occupiers, the corruption originates mainly with a dominant financial and political elite, now known as the "1 percent," whom the CPAC crowd reveres, defends and aspires to join. These two movements barely know how to talk to each other but by the time the conference ended on Saturday night, it was clear their polar positions define the current political spectrum.