Conservatives: We need a new message, not new principles

Tucker Carlson speaking at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. (Photo/TheUptake, Flickr)
Tucker Carlson speaking at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. (Photo/TheUptake, Flickr)

Tucker Carlson closed out the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday to a chorus of boos. His crime: informing a crowd of youngish, frustrated conservatives that if they wanted to succeed, they had to copy The New York Times.

“The New York Times is a liberal newspaper,” said Carlson. The catcalls started in. “They go out, and they get the facts.” More boos. “Conservatives need to copy that — they need to get out find out what’s going on, and not just analyze things based on what the mainstream media has reported.”

Carlson finished his speech (“thank you for indulging me”), and the day was gaveled to a close. The image on the giant screens in the Omni Shoreham’s ballroom changed to an ad for PajamasTV, which promised “analysis” of the news — just the thing that Carlson had criticized. In a parody of Apple’s “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” ads, a staid-looking man in a suit played “mainstream media” to a hip young man’s “PajamasTV.”

“It’s my job to tell you the facts,” said Mainstream Media.

“Yeah, like Dan Rather got it right about President Bush’s service record,” said PajamasTV.

At CPAC, the annual conference of the conservative movement celebrating its 36th year, there is no question who got the better of this exchange. Carlson is wrong, and the makers of PajamasTV — who ran a souped-up media booth, sponsored several tables for bloggers, and attracted hundreds of CPAC spectators to a simultaneous “Conservatism 2.0? conference — are right. The conservative movement lost ground in 2006 and 2008 because it lost its way and because the Democrats had better messaging. America is still a center-right country, and President Obama’s approval is bound to come back to Earth. There is plenty of reflection on the mistakes Republicans made in power, which CPAC conservatives define as spending too much money, botching the management of Hurricane Katrina relief, and not demanding accountability from their scandalized members. There is plenty of confidence that the new president is going to push Americans back into their arms.

“This is probably too strong,” said Doug Haney, the city attorney in Carmel, Ind., and a Republican precinct committeeman, “but Hitler also gave great speeches.”

Attendees and speakers at the three-day event were nearly unanimous in their fear that President Obama and the Democrats were turning America into a socialist state. Political Media, a conservative public relations company, passed out faux “stimulus dollar” bills printed by “The Socialist State of America.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the former presidential candidate who’d been roundly attacked by fiscal conservatives for approving tax increases, appeared shortly before 2 p.m. to give a red-meat speech about the new president’s red menace.

“The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics may be dead,” said Huckabee, “but a Union of American Socialist Republics is being born.” Democrats, according to Huckabee, were packing 40 years of pet projects like “health care rationing” into spending bills. “Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff.”

There was a sense of abandon, and of political liberation, now that the party had moved past President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain as its national figureheads. “Too many people identified the Bush administration with conservatism,” said former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton in another of one of the day’s blockbuster speeches. Bolton, of course, had been appointed to his post by George W. Bush.

Conference attendees were far kinder to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, represented at CPAC by the pro-life group Team Sarah (founded by the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List after Palin was nominated as McCain’s running mate) and Draft Sarah Palin 2012. “I think that if she had been the candidate, if John McCain had stepped aside, she would have clearly won the election,” said Paul Streitz, the national chairman of the Palin draft group. “She did not have the weaknesses on the immigration issue and the free trade issue that McCain did. She was stronger against the bailout than McCain was. She’s shown leadership. People are willing to follow her. People believe what she says.”

But Streitz was critical of Palin for hinting that she’d appear at CPAC, and then pulling out. “She should have decided to weather the criticism, or decided not to go. Not decided and then changed her mind. I thought that was the worst possible thing to do.”

Palin was one of 10 possible 2012 candidates on a straw poll that conference attendees were encouraged to fill out, as was Huckabee, but there wasn’t much presidential buzz in the air. Attendees were more focused on upcoming special elections — there were stickers for New York congressional candidate Jim Tedisco, the Republican running for the seat of now Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and the 2010 midterm elections. Saul Anuzis, the former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, cited one theory that voters get a “six-year itch,” and that they’ll naturally start to turn on the Democrats after giving them two election victories. He approved of new ads in his home state that attack freshman Democratic members of Congress for supporting the stimulus package.

“The latest polling I saw only showed 52 percent of Michigan voters supporting a stimulus,” said Anuzis, who didn’t see this as a sign that the issue was good for Democrats. “It varies across the state. In that area of Oakland County where this ad is running, where all the taxpayers live, I wouldn’t be surprised if the issue goes the other way.”

Matt Varvaro, a high school student from the New York City suburbs, liked the idea of finding primary challengers for Republicans who support the stimulus package, such as Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.). “Organizations like the Club for Growth have been very good at finding candidates to run against these RINOs (Republicans in Name Only),” said Varvano. “Then again, it’s ironic: the Club for Growth did that in Maryland last year and funded a challenger who beat the incumbent, who was a Republican, but lost to the Democrat. That happens sometimes.”

The focus on message and atoning for the socialist sins of previous Republicans gave some events the feel of internal monologues. Around 200 CPAC attendees packed the lunch portion of PajamasTV’s Conservatism 2.0 conference, held inside a darkened ballroom policed by numerous PJTV volunteers pointing out open seats. Chairs at the front of the room stood empty as two TV screens blinked on and beamed in Glenn Reynolds of and blogger/columnist Michelle Malkin, who made arguments that they’d worked out on their blogs. Reynolds quoted science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle on the risks of letting one party get out of hand in its threat to liberty. Malkin argued that Republicans could win over minority voters by talking to them about their values. “Education,” said Malkin, “should be branded as a conservative issue.”

If the crowd at CPAC agreed that changing its message and sales pitch was the conservative movement’s biggest challenge, the message and style remained elusive. Wrapping up a speech about how the current political climate reminded him of the build-up to the 1994 elections, “when guys like me came marching in with torches,” MSNBC host and former congressman Joe Scarborough warned his audience not to go over the top. “You can’t go out there and call Barack Obama a communist.” He got fewer boos than Carlson, but he didn’t get much applause.

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