Conservative Summit Part 2: The Interminable Mitt Romney
Cross-posted at Daily Kos
There’s a bit of cultural whiplash, going from conservative conference to anti-war march and back again, but it’s an interesting mental exercise. Walking west on Pennsylvania Avenue, I shed the outward signs of my real opinions – by Fourth Street, my ‘Out of Iraq’ placard is gone; by Tenth Street I have put the peace button in my pocket. By the time the Marriott heaves into sight I’ve set myself to reassuming a conservative mindset, the kind of outlook that’s less interested in peace, and a lot more interested in wondering how the heck the GOP leadership is going to account for itself after last November’s debacle. Just inside the doors of the Grand Ballroom, a gaggle of dark-suited young conservatives eye my name tag and step aside to let me pass. I gather that they have been assigned to keep any of the anti-war rabble from crashing the conference. And a good thing, too.1:45 pm
Panel: Editors and the Leaders
Rich Lowry, Kate O’Beirne Q&A w/ Rep. John Boehner, Rep. Eric Cantor
John Boehner is here to offer contrition. The National Review
editors are here to publicly flog him – politely and with subtlety, but a flogging nonetheless. They’ll talk policy, but this session is not about substance, it’s about ritual.
They grill him on the Republican failure to pass ethics reform last year (it got hung up in the Senate), about why House Republicans believe they lost, (Iraq, but also because “we lost the confidence of the public to govern”), how the Republican caucus feels about Bush (there’s going to be a problem on immigration), and whether the GOP has a brand problem (yes, “but the brand is an outgrowth of who we are”). Boehner repeats the Grand Truth that has been reiterated ad nauseum at this conference: we must return to our conservative principles
. I don’t know whether he really believes this, but he certainly knows what the crowd wants to hear.
The crowd also wants a bit more flogging. One of Boehner’s constituents stands up and asks the Minority Leader whether he has any personal
sense of contrition for his own sins against the conservative movement. “And if so, when did you lose your way?” A little thrill runs through the ballroom. A direct hit!
Boehner defends himself half-heartedly: “I don’t feel I ever lost my way.” And he rambles on about earmarks.
The session ends to disgruntled chatter from the audience. “Boehner seemed defensive,” says a man to a woman next to me. “The other speakers talked about what to do next. He seemed entrenched.”
“Grim,” the woman agrees.2:30 pm
Presentation: A Conservative Agenda on Social Issues
Maggie Gallagher, Professor Robert P. George, Ed Whelan
Moderated by Judge Robert Bork
A chill falls on the room: Bork has arrived. The dark lord of the social conservatives takes the podium to introduce the next panel; he speaks excruciatingly slowly, as though he were demoralizing himself with each word. By the end, my soul hurts.
If you read conservative magazines every week, as I foolishly do, you might notice that it’s mostly all about the money. Social issues tend to seem as though they’re thrown in for filler, for a change of pace. I’m surprised, therefore, to witness how passionately the audience responds to this panel. Judging by the discussion, social conservatives are currently interested in only two little things: life and marriage.
George is a highbrow conservative intellectual: the kind who writes books with titles like Making Men Moral
, and In Defense of Natural Law
. He argues that government, while it should be limited, must act on the basis of “moral truth:” his truth, of course, not yours or mine. Though now I’m talking like a relativist. George speaks in support of the anti-abortion movement’s “incrementalist” strategy, comparing it to the path taken by the anti-slavery movement all that time ago. He argues that the movement’s next priorities ought to be to 1) “Make high-quality sonography widely available,” and 2) Elect legislators (all over the country) who will “de-fund abortion.”
He also speaks about stem-cell research, warning of the dangers of “fetal farming,” and about marriage, arguing that it cannot be a private affair, that government has an interest in “supporting” it.
But the most interesting discussion of marriage comes from Gallagher, the long-time “marriage activist.” For the first time I start to understand how social conservatives see this issue, how they didn’t start talking about marriage in the context of gay marriage, but how they’ve been worried about the institution’s “decline” for quite some time now, and for them gay marriage was just the latest in a long string of battles in what they think is a war to “defend” marriage. “The marriage crisis has nothing to do with gay people,” says Gallagher. She sees gay marriage as an unfortunate diversion – a divisive fight at a time when Americans left and right should be uniting around a defense of marriage.
And then she lays out the deep conceptual dilemma social conservatives face over gay marriage. They can’t
just accept it, for a very basic reason:
“How can the marriage movement make the argument that children need mothers and fathers if we accept gay marriage?”
She goes on to explain the really dark fear harbored by anti-gay marriage activists. If the state accepts that there is no difference between gay marriage and other marriage, opposing gay marriage will be treated as racism is treated.
"And let’s look at what the government does not let racists do:
- You can’t run a school
- You can’t have a professional license
- You can’t run a charity."
This last one is especially upsetting to social conservatives. For instance, Gallagher says, “the Catholic Church has been forced out of the adoption business in Massachusetts.”
I think that “marriage activists” are deeply confused about the difference between means and ends, fetishizing the one (marriage) for the nominal sake of the other (healthy individuals, healthy society). And I think it’s a disgrace that their social battle lines would hold civil rights hostage to the prejudices and neuroses of various religions. But let’s be clear about the magnitude of the challenge here. Those of us who defend civil rights have argued for a distinction between religious marriage as a private affair and state-sanctioned marriage as a public affair. But for some people, it is impossible
to separate those spheres. Not just theoretically, but in everyday practical life.
I don’t believe that Maggie Gallagher hates gay people. I think she is sincere in her belief that marriage needs defending and that gay marriage is a sad battle that must be fought in the course of that defense - because what other option does she have? Perhaps we really do need the work of our religious progressives, because perhaps the battle for justice and equal rights can only be won by recognizing that, spiritually speaking, for very many people, not only is the personal political, but the political is personal.3:30 pm
Debate: Resolved: President Bush’s Planned ‘Surge’ in Iraq is a Mistake
Lawrence Korb vs. Bill Kristol
Here is the Debate that Dare Not Speak its Name in conservative circles. It’s an open secret that many conservatives – including Bill Buckley, the godfather of NR
and all that it spawned – consider the Iraq war a mistake and the ‘surge’ a dumb idea. But it’s still not exactly polite to make a show of it in public. And that, embarrassingly, is what Korb is here to do.
I can feel the hostility in the room before Korb even opens his mouth. He makes great points: we’ve ‘surged’ several times before to no effect; neighboring countries – including Iran – have no interest in a failed state in Iraq, but will only come to the table when we set a date certain for withdrawal, and for the Iraqis themselves, the issue is not how well-trained they are (they’ve had plenty of time to train), but how motivated – and once again, there is no motivation until we provide a deadline. The crowd applauds his opening remarks politely; it’s the last time in the debate anyone will clap for him.
Korb, the realist ex-Reagan official, is up against Dr. Surge himself, the neocon Bill Kristol, who I’m surprised to find is funny and self-deprecating. He jokes – gently – about whether Korb should be “out there demonstrating with Jane Fonda.” And then its on to the wackiness: while the Iraqis might not want us there anymore, “It’s the Iraqis’ country but it’s our war – and I think we should try to win our wars.” Etc., etc.
Korb’s rebuttal is sharp: he wonders why it’s suddenly so in vogue to listen to the generals, considering that the administration had never done that before, and he mocks the notion that Congress’s nonbinding resolution could “send the wrong signal” about American resolve
.“You say the resolution sends the wrong signal? We had an election. That was the signal.”
Kristol will later respond to this remark with a variation on the “we weren’t conservative enough” theme, arguing that much of the anti-war vote was from people who think we’re not fighting hard enough
. It carries on, round and round the same circles with which we’re all so familiar. The audience grows increasingly irritated with Korb as the debate continues. I suppose it’s remarkable that this public debate is happening at all within conservative ranks, though the realist/neocon debate is one of the numerous significant fissures within the movement, so perhaps we should expect some airing of opinions. But I’m not left with the impression that anything has been resolved, that the right is any less befuddled by this mess of their own making.4:30 pm
Panel: Trumping the Race Card
Ward Connerly, Michael Steele, Dr. Abigail Thernstrom
Thesis: for Republicans, race is not a social
issue, it’s an electoral
issue. If that seems cynical, it’s hard to avoid. The only references to race I’ve heard at all thus far have to do with strategies for peeling off “the Hispanic Vote,” or a portion of “the Black Vote.” And this panel seems to have been arranged for strategic, not altruistic aims.
Still, that interpretation doesn’t account for the fact that there are black Republicans, some of them here today (though, and I’m saying this purely as an observation, not out of nastiness, this panel is the only point during the conference in which I will see more than one black person in the room. At this panel there as maybe six.). Presumably black Republicans want to talk about blacks and the GOP for reasons that go beyond pure instrumentalism.
Steele speaks first, but reveals very little. He talks about the burden of being an African-American Republican-American, but says nothing much beyond praising “the Party of Lincoln” and asserting that only the GOP can truly provide “empowerment, opportunity, and ownership” for blacks. Connerly tells the story of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, the latest in his long line of career-making efforts to end Affirmative Action. He promises a “Super Tuesday for Equality” on November 4, 2008
, when he plans to have anti-Affirmative Action referenda on the ballots of 3-5 states at the same time. The states will be “carefully chosen,” but he doesn’t indicate which ones they might be.
Thernstrom, though, reveals something more of the paradox at the heart of conservative attitudes toward race. She bitterly attacks Republicans for voting to uphold the Voting Rights Act, which she blames for creating the majority-black districts that allow the Congressional Black Caucus to, as she sees it, set the tone for African-American politics in the U.S. “Without the spineless groveling of Republicans,” she asserts, “black politics would be very different.” In her interpretation, the GOP, by refusing to force a re-writing of the VRA, has “aided and abetted” a kind of “extremist” racial politics which actually encourages African-Americans to view themselves as alienated from mainstream America. She insists that Republicans must find a distinct “civil rights voice” of their own:
“If Republicans want to win elections, it would help to stop pandering to the so-called civil rights movement. … Most Americans know it’s 2007, not 1950s Mississippi.”
Setting aside the fact that the past isn’t dead, and it isn’t even past; setting aside the National Review’s
own shameful racist history
, I’m not sure that everything Thernstrom says can be dismissed as disingenuous. Her CV features writings about race that go beyond crass political hackery, and when she speaks at the conference about the crisis in black education, she’s passionate about it; it matters to her in ways that go beyond electoral calculation. It’s probably a sad commentary on the conservative movement that this should be so noteworthy, and there’s certainly plenty of room to argue that those conservatives who genuinely are interested in racial progress have their prescriptions all wrong.
But it does progressives no favors if we ignore the fact that conservatives are talking about it.
After the panel, I wander the various levels of the lobby for a while. In the bar, the still-goateed Jonah Goldberg is shoveling peanuts into his mouth, surrounded by yet another circle of admirers – or is the same circle again and again? The bar is crowded with young Republicans in expensive blue suits. One of them buys Jonah a Miller Lite. “You’re a great American,” he tells Goldberg.
In the main lobby, schools of folks wearing anti-war pins drift through reefs of dark-suited conservatives. Hotel security is refusing entry to a man bearing a protest sign. Near a railing I see a pair of uniformed cops, watching.7:00 pm
Address by Governor Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan. Everyone in the conservative movement seems to be looking for the next Reagan; every politician seeking conservative support is keenly aware of the burden the Gipper’s legacy presents them. And Mitt Romney does not wear it well.
I’ve been sitting at a table near the podium, getting to know my fellow conservatives. Todd, from Albany, introduces himself with a joke: “I work for NARAL.” For a moment I believe him, forgetting where I am. Everyone else laughs heartily, and I join in. When Linda from Colorado sits down, Ian from D.C. steals Todd’s joke. We all laugh again.
Next to me is Brian from Hawaii. He’s quiet and for some reason I begin to suspect that he may be a mole like me. But in deep cover, you never know. Meanwhile, a debate flares up over presidential contenders. Todd likes Giuliani on national security, but doesn’t trust him on the courts. He asks me who I support. I’m a Newt Man, I say – though I’m concerned he may not be electable. I explain that I like the way he talks about politics and the personal. I don’t want to reveal my real reason for supporting him: he’s my friend
And then, after the main course, Romney takes the stage. He looks, and even sounds, not unlike Martin Sheen doing President Bartlett. But his words. My God, his boring, boring words.
He opens with what seems like a twenty-minute monologue on being a consultant. Somewhere I hear Newt Gingrich spinning in his premature grave.
Then he panders. “I opposed then and do now gay marriage and civil union” (applause). “This is not about adult rights. Gay marriage is about children” (applause). “I’ve changed my views on abortion” (big applause).
He talks about entitlements. He talks about competition from China. It’s like his people have been sitting through each panel at the conference, taking notes and compiling it all into one massive, numbing speech. People are falling asleep at my table. I get up to use the men’s room, and as I slip out, a man whispers to me: “He’s duplicating Bill Clinton at the ’88 convention. Somebody needs to send him a signal.”
Another man, overhearing this, whispers back: “How do you think I feel? I’m from Massachusetts. I’ve heard this all before!”
By the time I get back from the john, Romney has finally finished. He receives a standing ovation, which I think has as much to do with everyone’s need to stretch their legs as anything else.
I’m headed back to my hotel. Mark Steyn has promised us a Night Owl session featuring “Jonah Goldberg in a sparkly Bolero jacket, flouncing around like some queeny waiter in a Malibu restaurant,”
but I’m going to have enough psychological baggage from this weekend as it is, without adding that image to my mental catalogue.
And the conservatives aren’t done yet.Tomorrow: Mr. Huckabee Goes to Washington
Labels: Conservative Summit, Mitt Romney, National review