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."
KEEPING IT SIMPLE
To better approach Bush's "mission accomplished" example, Halberg encouraged the audience to "use 7th-grade grammar" and "get rid of acronyms." This made sense at a conference where dropping buzzwords like "liberty" and "9/11" elicited greater applause than a lone libertarian critique of the Patriot Act. But to those TV watchers who crave information on the Troubled Asset Relief Program (known as TARP) that bailed out the banks, or the counterinsurgency techniques (known as COIN) that have been crucial to military breakthroughs in Iraq and Afghanistan: Abandon hope.
Now, there are plenty of left-wing blowhards to go around, and a number of very smart conservatives who parse COIN and TARP every day. What's more, the tendency to favor "likeability" over credibility informs Obama's road to the White House as much as it does the disastrous Bush presidency. But the dumbing down of discourse has also been a highly effective diversion for the conservatives stuck with a discredited foreign and domestic policy.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the new norm was CPAC's keynote speech, delivered by the offbeat, wildly popular Fox News host Glenn Beck. Beck, a beneficiary of the age of theater begun by Ronald Reagan and perfected by Bush, Obama, Stephen Colbert and even Sarah Palin, has likewise mastered the art of everyman nastiness pioneered by last year's CPAC keynoter, Rush Limbaugh.
Leave aside that the conservative movement relies on entertainers, rather than experts, for their main attractions. Beck's hour-long rant actually put many of Halberg's counsels into practice. On likeability, he scored high marks: "I'm sorry," he apologized at one point, touching his heart. "I don't use a teleprompter—I just speak from here." Certainly, he was entertaining as well as unspecific. Beck mentioned "vomit" more times than he mentioned, say, monetary policy. As for stories, he told a lot, freely creating his own reality before the adoring crowd. Noting that small businesses are "struggling to save jobs," he used his trademark blackboard to chalk statistics and numbers geared at explaining that "we are spending more than we've ever spent before, and it doesn't work."
IGNORANCE IS BLISS
As then-candidate Obama said near the close of his 2008 campaign for the White House: "It's like these guys take pride in being ignorant." The president was responding to Republican jeers about his suggestion that Americans inflate their tires to save money on gas—but it remains an apt rebuttal today. The White House recently released details of special legislation designed to help small business owners, who will have access to a $30 billion lending fund, receive a $5,000 tax credit for hiring new workers this year—and be exempted from the capital gains taxes conservatives often decry. Nevertheless, Beck dog-whistled to the raptured, overwhelmingly white audience about "the kinds of people nobody is even noticing anymore."
It may not be Beck's job to think policy—or even tell the truth. But with his help, the Republican Party (not officially affiliated with CPAC) seems to encourage and exploit the diminishing national attention span-producing not just Beck, but junior flacks like Jason Mattera, climate change-denying lobbyists turned "analysts" and so-called "journalists" who practice no such thing. It also forces mild-mannered moderates like Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to pander openly via misogynistic jokes about Tiger Woods' wife. And it degrades everyone's understanding of what on earth is going on in America.
George Packer of the New Yorker recently recalled a conversation he had with David Frum, a Republican moderate who is trying to create a space for intelligent conservative policy discussion. Frum's worry, way back in 2008, was that "the beaten party believes it just has to say it louder." What I saw at CPAC suggests Republicans are in full voice.
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.