I Go to the Conservative Summit, Part One
Friday, January 26
Washington feels better – physically improved – with the Democrats back in power. Where it had lurked menacingly, the Capitol now presides majestically
over the skyline. The monuments seem ennobled rather than cheapened, the marble shinier, the steam grates steamier. There’s still that problem with the White House, but it’s shrunken now; the man in there shrank it himself. And this weekend, tens of thousands of my fellow citizens will take to the city’s streets to once again demand an end to the war in Iraq. Washington is changing.
But I’m here to caucus with the throwbacks, the vanquished rebels, as they regroup and plot to storm the establishment once again. We beat them last November but they aren’t going anywhere. This is the National Review Institute’s 2007 Conservative Summit, a conclave of the best and the brightest in what remains of the conservative movement, and they may be hurting, but they’re in a fighting mood. This is where they discuss the long road back to what they hope will be power.
And I’m your fly on the wall.
The Summit is convening at the J.W. Marriott on 14th Street and Pennsylvania Ave., just around the corner from the Reagan Building - a billion-dollar boondoggle, the most expensive Federal building ever constructed, built by a Republican Congress and named for the hero of the small-government conservative cause. And they say Americans don’t do irony.
I’m a little nervous. I have a cheap suit and a flimsy cover story; I half expect to be tossed out unceremoniously when I try to register. I don’t know how to act ‘conservative.’ And this evening’s event is going to require jumping in at the ideological deep end.6:00 pm
Cocktail Reception Honoring Ambassador John Bolton
I read recently
that Dartmouth archconservative Jeffrey Hart, who has recently – and vehemently – broken off his long association with the National Review, defines a “real” conservative as a person who, among other things, drinks “maybe Dewar’s on the rocks.” That’s my drink! It’s nice to know I’m already a little bit of a conservative. First thing I do after walking into the Marriott’s Capitol Ballroom is ask the bartender if she has Dewar’s. She nods and hands me an O’Douls. Things are off to a bad start.
The room is crowded with blue-suited and bejeweled conservatives. The racial composition won’t surprise you, but I have to admit that only a portion of the people here seem as square as I’d expected. Some of them are actually quite stylish. I even spot more than one indie-rock hairdo.
And then there’s Bolton. He’s standing right there, just a few feet away from me, nodding graciously to praise from a modest stream of respect-payers. He’s shorter than I expected, but his moustache is no less impressive. I want to say something to him, just to have the experience of talking to John Bolton, but that would require shaking his hand, and it’s going to require a far more advanced case of Stockholm Syndrome before I’m willing to do that.
I wander off to a table with a small sign marked “imported cheeses.” One of them looks suspiciously like Brie. French
brie. I help myself. Then I turn around and Bang! There’s Jonah Goldberg
. My head swims. He’s goateed and shaggy-haired, looking for all the world like a Bay Area dot-com geek circa 1997. Surrounding him is a circle of admirers, hanging on his words as he discourses about… I don’t know, sounds like something to do with Arab nations and GDP. I hear him use the word “kleptocracy.” I need another drink.
And there's Pam Atlas
, wearing the silveriest, sparkliest thing in the room. Why didn’t I bring my camera tonight? I get my drink and skulk away, annoyed with myself.
Near the stage, Jonah G. is holding forth about something Colbert-related, when NR
editor Rich Lowry steps up to the podium to introduce David Frum, who praises Bolton for “representing the United States of America at the United Nations, and not the other way around.” Frum condemns liberals for failing to insist on reform at the UN. Never mind that, if we’re serious about reforming the UN, perhaps it would be good to send an ambassador who could attempt to do so in good faith, rather than one who seems mainly interested in the organization’s physical destruction.
Finally Bolton himself steps up, to raucous applause. The man standing next to me shouts, “I love you John!” I look at him, unable to hide my disbelief. He shoots me a hostile glance in return. I need to be more diplomatic.
Bolton’s own remarks are brief – and, unsurprisingly, defiant. He talks about his political baptism in the Goldwater movement, a poignant historical reference for a conservative crowd seeking reassurance after a political defeat. He urges his audience forward again, insisting that this is no time to let liberals gain the initiative: “we ought to set the terms of the debate.” He’s given another enthusiastic ovation, though for these conservatives, the vexing question at the center of the conference is exactly how that might be possible.
And so it begins.8:00 pm
Night Owl Panel Session
The State of Conservatism
Mona Charen, Laura Ingraham, Kathryn Lopez, Michelle Malkin, Kate O’Beirne
“Welcome to ‘The View,’” says K-Lo. And, with the comfy chairs, the coffee mugs, and of course the all-female cast, the panel is quite a lot like that show, if Rosie, Barbara, Joy, and Elisabeth all had written books with subtitles about “How Liberals” are doing all manner of vile and degrading things to marriage, puppies, and the Republic.
They discuss the State of the Union address (Malkin is displeased with the President’s reference to ‘wood chips’), Jim Webb (they’re impressed), and the Democratic field (they fear only Hillary). (More here)
But mostly they talk about Iraq. It’s a PR problem. On this they all agree. It’s the AP’s reporting, it’s the lack of a heroic “face” because the administration won’t flog the stories of Silver Star winners, it’s a dearth of pictures of dead terrorists. As Charen says, “it’s all about perception.”
I understand why people like Malkin and Charen and Ingraham have so much invested in viewing Iraq as primarily a problem of public relations. It’s because only in this interpretation is the war something that falls within their competence to influence. They are communications professionals, so Iraq must be a communications problem. They are hammers, so Iraq is a nail.
If it were otherwise, if Iraq were to be understood as a real problem to be solved by people with actual expertise in things like military affairs, international diplomacy, economics, and so on, then these pundits would be doing nothing more than chatting vapidly from one easy chair to another, exchanging pointless opinions over coffee, providing nothing beyond idle entertainment.
They’d be little more than talk show hosts.Saturday, January 27
Address by Speaker Newt Gingrich
The welcome is more modest than I had expected. Ryan Sager, in a book to which I’ll refer below, described the former Speaker as “Newt Gingrich – or, as conservative crowds like to call him, ‘Newt! Newt! Newt!’” But this morning there’s no chanting – only friendly but subdued applause. Maybe everyone’s hung over.
Newt, the futurist conservative revolutionary, has been predicting interesting times for the Republican Party for at least a year now. And having been proved right, with the GOP trounced in the midterms and the conservative movement scrambling to regroup, he’s able to buck up the crowd by putting things into a little perspective. He recounts his long struggle, first to get elected as a Republican in Georgia, and then to drag his party’s Congressional leadership toward a majority that few of them had been actively seeking. The point, he emphasizes, is that when his Revolution came in 1994, it was as the result of a long investment.
And, he says to fierce applause, “Republicans did not make conservatives a majority; conservatives made Republicans a majority.”
Gingrich launches into a scorching denunciation of the two-year-long presidential cycle, calling it a “consultant employment program.” Much of his speech is an assault on consultants – not far off from the kind of criticism you find in the progressive blogosphere. He excoriates their reptilian anti-intellectualism, insisting that what Republicans need now is an intellectual renaissance. And he argues that the conservative revival can only come from outside the Beltway – to this end, Newt has launched a new 527 (American Solutions for Winning the Future
), a nationwide training program for conservative leaders fifty times the size of GOPAC
, using advanced communications technology to hold it all together.
Gingrich has always had a flair for communication. He explains to the audience how conservative rhetoric should speak “personally first, historically second, and politically last.” The question, he says, is always “what are you going to do for me?” For instance: “I’m going to give you the choice to take your kids out of a failing school.” Sounding a theme I will hear over and over again this weekend, he argues that Americans are waiting for an alternative to the rule of the ‘liberal elites.’ “Why aren’t we the ‘better-life’ party?” he asks.
Ultimately he believes that, if Republicans connect with their “core values,” they are the party of the natural majority (he really is the mirror image of the progressive blogger). And he calls for a philosophical confrontation with the left:
I don’t believe the left can survive in an open and honest dialogue about the differences between the two [philosophies].
For a number of reasons, I think Gingrich is right: the confrontation is coming. We will have to explicitly ask Americans to decide between the conservative and the progressive conceptions of government.
I disagree with him about who will win – but only if progressives are prepared.
During Q&A I sneak out the back and get in near the front of the book-signing line. I buy a copy of Newt’s latest
, and step in behind a woman with a giant stack of books. In fact, her giant stack is only two copies of the same thing: Newt’s massive Civil War novel. “It’s more fun” than the other stuff, she tells me. She’s buying copies for her sons. Lucky them.
Gingrich emerges and begins to sign, and I wonder what I’ll say to him. He looks engaging and friendly. Apparently the woman in front of me is some sort of writer, and when she mentions this he says he wants to give her an “assignment:” we need somebody to write an alternate history novel, he says – but I can’t hear what it’s supposed to be about. Damn! Newt actually directs the woman to his publisher. I want an assignment! And there I am, still without knowing what to say. I mumble something about the consultants, because I hate consultants too. He thanks me and signs his name with a blue sharpie. “Your friend, Newt Gingrich.”
My friend!9:00 am
Panel Session: “Is Small-Government Conservatism a Big Joke?”
Dr. Marvin Olasky, Congressman Pat Toomey, Congressman Paul Ryan
So why do I think a confrontation is coming? One reason is that, for conservatives, it’s the only way out of an ideological trap of their own making – the only way short of total surrender, that is. As a percentage of GDP, government spending has multiplied seven times since the Great Depression. No conservative leader – not Reagan, not Gingrich, none – has had any significant impact on this. “Starve the beast” has failed. The projected growth of entitlement costs is going to require a massive increase in government spending over the next generation.
And six years of a “conservative” president working with a “conservative” Congress has done absolutely nothing to reverse or even slow that trend. George W. Bush has presided over the largest expansion of entitlement spending since Lyndon Johnson – a fact conservatives repeat bitterly, and often. Deficits are skyrocketing.
The session’s title poses a harsh question for the panelists.
Olasky, the architect of Bush’s ‘compassionate conservatism,’ is on the defensive. Compassionate conservatism is denounced by many on the right as “big-government conservatism” – a pseudo-liberal scam operated by those who believe that the only way to hold power anymore is to feed Americans’ sense of dependency. Olasky, though, argues that compassionate conservatism is in fact the only path that can lead
to smaller government. “If Americans think that big government helps the poor and small government doesn’t, a critical mass of them will choose big government.”
Olasky flogs a pair of old ideas - an “anti-poverty tax credit”
(an idea he has been pushing for at least 12 years
), and a system of “social service vouchers”
(there is, it seems, little that conservatives love more than a good voucher). Katrina, he argues, demonstrated that government cannot meet human needs as effectively as local volunteers. Here we see again the conservative reaction to Katrina as self-fulfilling prophesy. All Katrina proved was that conservative
government doesn’t work, because conservatives don’t believe that government can
work. Would you trust a doctor who didn’t believe in medicine?
Paul Ryan, the Ranking Member of the House Budget Committee, suggests that the American people now view the Republican Party as the party of big government. This is good news, he argues! It means that voters threw the Republicans out because voters want small government. (Congressman Ryan must live in a world with a very pretty sky indeed.) This is a chance, Ryan tells us, for the GOP to get rid of the deadweight, to “go back to the wilderness” and rediscover itself.
“What happened to our big ideas?” he asks. Conservatives should be seeking ways to break Americans’ solidarity – though he doesn’t put it this way; rather, he argues for ending “collectivist” government programs in favor of “defined contribution”
schemes. It’s the ownership society, which, as we all know, means you’re on your own
The problem for conservatives, Ryan points out, is that time is not on their side. If they don’t destroy entitlements, the costs of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will require higher taxes and much larger government – Ryan says it will double in size – within forty years. Being knocked out of the majority, Ryan suggests, is the GOP’s chance to focus the debate on the role of government itself.
Toomey, the right-wing former Congressman who nearly unseated Senator Arlen Spector in a primary challenge, is now President and CEO of the Club for Growth. Like Ryan, Toomey believes that there is demonstrated public support for limiting the size of American government. “Almost all the bad things that happen in America come from big government,” he asserts. Conservatives must
seize the opportunity to force a debate about the size of government – because this may be their last chance. “The default setting of government is that it grows,” says Toomey. If conservatives don’t force a confrontation now, “we’ll get to the point where it’s politically untenable” to shrink government at all.
In the question-and-answer session, a man asks the panelists whether the time has come for a national sales tax. He’s not the last audience member to speak up about sales and flat taxes over the course of the weekend – and nearly every single time, the question will be dodged. Ryan does say something interesting, though: in 2011, Congress will be forced to deal with a big tax adjustment. This may be an opportunity for conservatives to completely re-write the tax code.
You can bet that Ryan and his fellow-travelers will be ready for ideological war. Will we?10:00 am
Debate: Resolved: Religious Conservatives are Critical to Building a Republican Majority
Ralph Reed vs. Ryan Sager
For conservatives, ideological warfare against progressives is linked to the war within. I’ve been looking forward to this session. Sager is the author of The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party
. I’ll review the book later this week – it’s a great read, and a fascinating window into the dilemma currently facing Republicans and conservatives. The book is very much a mirror image of Tom Schaller’s Whistling Past Dixie
, urging Republicans to avoid getting bogged down in the South and to focus on winning the West.
Despite the subtitle, Sager’s primary target is not evangelicals, but the aforementioned “big-government conservatives.” The problem is that social conservatives have grown comfortable with the Bush administration’s betrayal of libertarians, and by rhetorically feeding evangelicals while abandoning the small-government project, Bush has helped wreck the balanced “fusionism” that has held the conservative movement together since the 1960s.
Ralph Reed is here to argue that evangelicals are still a crucial part of the conservative movement, though that isn’t exactly what Sager is arguing against
. Sager only wants to restore the balance between social and economic conservatives, and he points out that Reed himself, as head of the Christian Coalition, once promoted an agenda that was as much about taxes as it was about abortion.
One problem is that nobody can agree about how much power evangelicals actually have. Depending on how you look at it, Christian conservatives are either dominating the GOP or being repeatedly fooled and manipulated by it. Whatever the case, Reed insists that it would be a mistake for the Republicans to turn their backs on the one constituency that has consistently supported them.
But Sager warns that the evangelicals’ obsession with issues like gay marriage could seriously damage the Republican Party:
Demographically this is just a losing issue. Being on the wrong side of one of the most important civil rights issues of our generation – this is what happened last time – isn’t a good thing. […]
You will lose the younger generation. It’s like the civil rights movement, which is a stain on the conservative movement and on the National Review – not to get nasty, but it is.
The marriage issue is the politics of division: demonizing one group to win another group’s votes. It’s the losing side of history – Sager notes that, for instance, Eliot Spitzer is getting out ahead of the issue, having endorsed gay marriage in his 2006 campaign with the expectation that by the time he runs for president in 2012 or 2016, the country will be ready for it. At the sound of Spitzer’s name, a hiss runs through the crowd. I can’t help thinking to myself: Eliot Spitzer could kick your asses. All of you.
I’m a little juvenile that way.
The West, Sager says, is turning blue – and there are far too few evangelicals there for the GOP to make them the center of its strategy to remain competitive in the region. I think he’s absolutely right, but the crowd is clearly on Reed’s side. That’s reassuring – the bulk of the conservative movement is deluding itself here – but gradually the right will start to wake up to what Sager is saying, and then we’ll have a real challenge on our hands.
Of course, the ‘evangelicals vs. libertarians’ debate, while real, is just a proxy battle in the central war within the conservative movement: over whether “small-government conservatism” has any future, any meaning at all. It’s a war that will have great consequences for the progressive project, too – since the conservatives’ only way out of it may be to turn their energies against the notion of activist government with greater vehemence than ever before.11:00 am
Presentation: A Conservative Agenda on Foreign Policy
John O’Sullivan, Clifford May, David B Rivkin
If the debate over the role of government is vexing conservatives, so too is the question of the way forward for conservative foreign policy in the wake of the Iraq disaster. Despite the mess they’ve made, however, their arrogance is undimmed.
O’Sullivan dismisses liberals’ national security agenda as a series of irrelevant obsessions with AIDS, poverty, and global warming (and the audience laughs heartily). Never mind that in fact global warming, if it’s anywhere near as bad as scientists warn it could be, will present national security threats that will make the Iranian situation look like a game of patty-cake. This is the crowd that blithely sucked us into the worst foreign policy disaster in American history, presuming to lecture liberals on the national interest.
O’Sullivan attacks NGOs ("transies," he calls them), and suggests that, just as conservatives built a movement to take control of politics in America, they should now do the same on the international level. And he denounces the European Union, labeling it “anti-American” and criticizing the Bush administration, and Condi Rice in particular, for supporting it. The American strategy in Europe, O’Sullivan argues, ought to be “divide and conquer.”
David Rivkin agrees. “The EU project is very interested in imposing its views on the world,” Rivkin tells us. Indeed, it has been seeking to make it impossible for “civilized nations” to make war at all anymore. But “the biggest problem is at home,” he says. It’s the “cross-pollination” between the European left and Blue America, undermining the neoconservative project on both sides of the Atlantic.
One man’s biggest problem is another man’s greatest hope, I suppose. I leave the room and head upstairs toward the lobby. Jeb Bush is scheduled to speak at lunch, but I’ve had enough of the Bush clan in my life. Instead, I walk out and down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Reagan monolith, to the east end of the National Mall, where a crowd is gathering under the Capitol to insist on an end to the Iraq war, and to the reign of catastrophe the right has imposed upon America and the world.
The biggest person in Washington, I learned from a tour guide, is Freedom
, who stands atop the Capitol dome. She faces east because that is the direction from which danger came. But today the danger is all around her. And on this day in particular, it is fourteen blocks behind her at the Marriott Hotel, where the movement that has wreaked so much havoc, at home and abroad, is licking its wounds, and preparing for a comeback.
Will we be ready?Next: Part Two: Will Mitt Romney Never Shut Up?And:
Part Three: Mr. Huckabee Goes to Washington