WASHINGTON– Mitt Romney has not spoken at any Tea Parties. He has largely avoided the messy debates over the 10th Amendment, nullification, Paul Ryan’s budget proposals, and whether TV stars should be punished for using the “R” word. But at CPAC, at his mid-afternoon address to an overflowing crowd of conservative activists, it was like he’d been waving a Gadsen Flag and a tea kettle from the start.
“God bless every American who said ‘No!’” said Romney. “It is right and praiseworthy to say no to bad things. It is right to say no to cap-and-trade, no to card check, no to government health care, and no to higher taxes.”
The audience at this annual conference — one where he has regularly won the presidential straw poll, but one where he’d never been quite adopted as a true son of the movement — roared with approval. Romney had been introduced by Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who never mentioned his party affiliation during his insurgent special election bid, but used it twice before the CPAC crowd. Romney, said Brown, was one of the “leading lights” of the GOP.
Brown had teed up the crowd for a jeremiad against “liberal neo-monarchists,” a “failing” president, and the threat of a “Godzilla-size government bureaucracy.” They cheered even louder when Romney pushed the envelope. He said the rebellion against Obama hinted that “history will judge President Bush far more kindly” than his successor for “pulling us from a deepening recession following the attack of 9/11″ and “[keeping] us safe.”
In one speech, the year-long journey of conservative activists had come full circle. The last time they gathered for CPAC, George W. Bush had handed the presidency to Barack Obama and Democrats had dramatically expanded their majorities in the House and Senate. Inside the hall, they accepted blame for Bush’s failures; outside the hall, the first Tea Party rallies saw conservative activists declaring independence from Bush’s TARP and Obama’s stimulus package.
On Thursday, the Tea Party and libertarian factions of the conservative base re-entered the fold and took center stage in packed-to-the-rafters educational panels. And at the same time, those mainstream conservative groups invited these activists to rejoin the Republican Party that had disappointed them. They’d learned their lessons. They’d closed the book on their failure. And in retrospect, didn’t Bush and Cheney seem pretty good?
“We owe you an apology,” said Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) in a low-key speech delivered to a room that was quickly emptying out after Romney’s speech. “But more importantly, we owe you what we have been doing since January 2009.” Since Obama’s victory, argued McCotter — and most everyone else at CPAC — the essential goodness of the GOP and the rightness of its policies had been brought into relief.
“Oh my God!” said David Bossie, the president of Citizens United, who was manning his organization’s booth and accepting constant congratulations for its victory in the “Hillary the Movie” campaign finance reform case. “Barack Obama is the employee of the year for the conservative movement! Every conservative should keep a picture of Barack Obama in his office and — you know how when people go to Notre Dame games, they kiss the sign? Every conservative should kiss that picture.”
Jerry Doyle, a syndicated conservative radio host, told TWI that the crowd’s outlook for the midterms reminded him of the attitude of fans walking into the Superbowl — “Everybody’s been waiting for the big game, and here it is.” He’d spent years talking to conservative callers who were fed up with Bush, but he wasn’t surprised at the speed with which conservatives and independents turned on Obama, or the speed with which angry activists took another look at what the GOP could offer.
“I think people had said, ‘You know what, my government’s going to be there for me, take care of me.’ And they found out, no, it’s not.” When Americans grew sick of their government, “Obama just happened to be the figurehead.”
That was the attitude that united conservatives who’d remained faithful all along and conservatives who were returning to a post-Bush movement. The biggest surprise of Thursday’s schedule was a walk-on appearance by former Vice President Dick Cheney, following a speech by his daughter Liz that re-litigated arguments Republicans had made against Obama for years — at one point, she accused him of “calling small-town Americans ‘bitter.’” The ovation for Liz’s father rolled on for more than a minute; he drew more applause predicting that Obama would be a “one-term president.” And when he headed down to the exhibit hall for a brief radio interview, some members of his entourage sported “Draft Cheney 2012″ stickers handed out by GOProud, a gay Republican group whose booth was doling out reels of Draft Cheney stickers.
“This grew out of conversations we were having back in November,” said GOProud’s Jimmy LaSilvia, pointing to the group’s chairman of the board Chris Barron. “He kept saying, ‘Cheney’s the guy! Cheney’s the guy!’” As he talked, more activists grabbed stickers, wearing them in proud view of hovering media cameras, and few CPAC attendees that TWI spoke to were completely cold on the idea. Some suggested that a terrorist attack might boost Cheney’s political stock. The cause was popular enough to draw in activists less than 100 percent comfortable with a gay Republican group.
“I got it from GOProud,” said Colt Ables, a student at the University of Texas-Arlington, shrugging a little with embarrassment. “But I like Cheney, so I’m wearing it.”
Conservatives who winced at the Bush-Cheney record were out in force, but serious disagreement with the back-to-Bush conservatives was hard to find. Two years ago, Ron Paul’s presidential campaign was lacking a booth in the CPAC exhibit hall until Mitt Romney dramatically quit the presidential race and opened up space for their back-to-1776 brochures. This year, Paul’s Campaign for Liberty occupied a larger section of the exhibit hall than any group except the NRA, with reams of fliers, copies of Young American Revolution magazine (with an illustration of Paul taking the presidential oath on the cover). An intern, Sam Swedberg, donned a sumo suit, a grey wig, a Wal-Mart-bought gingham blouse, and a nametag identifying him as “Big Sis Janet” — Janet Napolitano — challenging passersby to wrestle him. Jeff Frazee, who runs Young Americans for Liberty, told TWI that his libertarian peers were making out just fine with the neoconservatives whom Paul opposed strongly enough to endorse a trio of third party candidates in the 2008 presidential race instead of the McCain-Palin ticket.
The once-extreme obsessions of Paul’s fans bled into the rest of the convention. They were present in speeches from mainstream figures like Romney, and they were present in lectures that filled large rooms to overflowing. Tom Woods, the author of “The Politically Incorrect History of the United States” and a sometime ghostwriter for Paul, spoke to a packed room on the subject of nullifying federal laws.
“[Nullification] has only been used by evil people who hate America and hate black people and want to oppress people,” said Woods, sarcastically characterizing the arguments of critics. “Oh, yeah. Because the federal government would never oppress people!”
Republican politicians couldn’t really avoid the arguments of Paul acolytes and Tea Partiers. “Senator DeMint, great speech!” said one fan who grabbed the South Carolina Republican on the way to a book signing. “But why didn’t you talk about the Fed?” But the enthusiasm was welcomed. Not even the John Birch Society’s presence in the exhibit hall (their display included a rare CPAC sight, a book attacking Bircher critic William F. Buckley) was very controversial. Republicans argued that the base was speaking for America, that Democrats were really “the party of no” because they didn’t listen to Tea Partiers.
“The Republican Party should not attempt to co-opt the Tea Parties,” said Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), in a speech framed around his potential ascension to the Speaker’s chair if his party wins the House. “I think that’s the dumbest thing in the world. What the Republican Party will do is listen to them, talk to them, and walk among them. The other party can’t say the same.” And he beseeched activists to help the GOP out with a new Contract With America-style statement — it wouldn’t “come from the mountain,” said Boehner, but from the party’s rejuvenated base.