In 2003, Republicans attending the 30th anniversary of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) had much to celebrate: a solid majority in Congress, a conservative stalwart in George W. Bush and a war in Iraq coming down the chute. This year, the out-of-power American right convened once more. Panelists discussed “Going Rogue,” the dangers of “Obamanomics,” or means of “Saving Freedom from The Enemies of Our Values.” A man in a kilt waved a gun and a flag with the revolutionary slogan: “Don’t Tread on Me.” After hours, the next wave of Gingriches and Norquists reveled at concerts, actual tea parties and a hookah-themed “Smoke Out the Terrorists” bash.
And, despite the Republican drubbing in the 2008 elections, participants seemed eager to rehabilitate their political brand. So what if they lost Osama Bin Laden, drove 401(K)s into the ditch and wayward politicians “hiked the Appalachian trail”? Quitting is for losers like Evan Bayh. Marco Rubio, a right-wing darling and candidate for the U.S. Senate in Florida, laid it out for the crowd on day one: “From tea parties to the election in Massachusetts, we are witnessing the single greatest political pushback in American history.”
This is a convenient form of amnesia–but one truly believed. “[Bush] took down the Taliban, waged a war against the jihadists and was not afraid to call it what it is–a war,” former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney told the crowd of 10,000. When Dick Cheney, the vice president Republicans shunned like a leper in 2008, made a surprise visit to the stage, CPAC erupted into teeny-bopper screams.
More than mere belief, there seems to be some truth behind the comeback chatter. There is still no clear leader; the party-fringey libertarian Rep. Ron Paul won the annual “straw poll” of preferred candidates for president–and no policy victories of which to speak. But generic party preference between Republicans and Democrats is about even at 45 percent–from a Republican low of 30 percent in summer 2009.
Perhaps the GOP brand makeover reflects the success of attrition. President Obama has done Republicans the service of appropriating two unpopular wars and an economic collapse–of their doing. Anti-bailout independent voters and suffering middle- and lower-income Americans aren’t sure the centrist, charismatic Obama feels their pain. By way of some public relations jujitsu, GOP obstructionism on everything from the stimulus package to banking regulations has turned Democrats into villains.
But this momentary rebound hinges upon the same dangerous game that CPAC and Republicans at large have been playing since the Bush years. Whether on health care, climate change or tax cuts–somewhere along the line, they seem to have purged conservative political discourse of real information.
Late Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously told an adversary: “You’re entitled to your own opinions. You’re not entitled to your own facts.” Yet the communications climate in which Fox News wins rating wars, conservative talk radio reigns supreme, and Internet stalwarts like Matt Drudge’s Web site are joined by new media entrants like Andrew Breitbart (ubiquitous at CPAC, and the “tea party” convention earlier in February) makes assembling your own version of reality as easy as American pie.
So Republicans are able to pretend the stimulus and the bailout are the same type of “government spending”–though they’re not. House leaders Reps. John Boehner and Eric Cantor have repeated the line that Obama needs to cut taxes–though a third of the stimulus is tax cuts for 95 percent of Americans. Dozens of Republican House members have taken credit for local growth funded by the Recovery Act they hated, and maintain that liberals are big spenders–when it’s Republican presidents who ballooned the deficit. The GOP obsession with image and rhetoric over substance sometimes comes at their own expense: Rather than elect a competent fundraiser as the public face of the party, the Republican National Committee, in a knee-jerk reaction to Obama’s election, supported the continued upward fall of Michael “potato salad” Steele.
A CPAC television training workshop sponsored by the Virginia-based Leadership Institute shed some light on the blurring line between fact and fiction. Beverly Halberg, a consultant running the session, promised to reveal the secret of selling conservatism: “The mistake people make on television is trying to be an expert on their candidacy or their issue,” she said. “This is not the place for that. [TV] is a place to be likeable, to entertain people.”
Her pupils, a mix of aging libertarians, precocious William F. Buckley types and Christian moms, watched a clip of then-Gov. Bush appearing on the Regis and Kathie Lee Show. Bush ambled on stage, mugged with Regis Philbin about their matching ties, and sat down. The crowd roared. “He won over his audience, and he hadn’t said one word,” Halberg beamed.
That seemed to be the key counsel for Republicans trying to climb up off the mat: Say nothing original or specific, and for goodness sakes, smile. “You’re not on TV to trick people,” said Eric Slee, a conservative media consultant at the conference. “But news is entertainment.”