February 08, 2008

There are many joys to be found at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference: the chance to buy a soviet-era ushanka emblazoned with “€œComrade Clinton”€ or perhaps a GOP elephant mouse pad are but a few.

I”€™ve felt like a dissident in the Right throughout the Bush administration and the “€œIran wants Nuke”€”give them to “€™em”€ t-shirt era. I did feel at home, however, when I saw one with “€œI”€™d rather be waterboarded than vote for McCain”€ (seen here modeled by Michael Brendan Dougherty). Needless to say, I concur.

Then there are the attendees. Filling the ranks of the usual politicos and pundits are legions of college Republicans, all shipped in from the Midwest. I wonder what exactly they get from a trip out to DC, besides the usual trills of the drunken road trip. The nation’s capital is, of course, “€œHollywood for the ugly,”€ and there’s a rather foul celebrity culture in which tons of coeds drool over the chance to get their picture taken with Newt and other stars of the FOXNews Channel. There’s also the opportunity for college Republicans to try out being a DC politico for a weekend. Of course, in many cases these jibes are unfair. There are clearly some committed young people”€”some are even interested in the history of the conservative movement. 

But one can”€™t say much for the avid McCain supporters. To punctuate his ascendancy, McCain bused in hoards of youngsters from Michigan”€”I”€™ve heard that he spent $400,000 on the effort”€”to hold up McCain signs and direct crowds toward the straw poll, which McCain is desperate to win. They were generally poorly dressed and unpleasant to say the least. 

This crowd certainly made themselves known when they booed and obnoxiously held up McCain signs during Ron Paul’s speech when he mentioned that we never found WMD in Iraq and shouldn”€™t be the “€œpolice men of the world.”€ There were probably reflexively expressing discomfort at attacks they”€™ve heard coming from Democrats; however, it might be only a matter of time before certain contingents within the CPAC convention begin to argue, “€œto the contrary, we should police the world!”€  

Countering the McCain groupies, there were thankfully some anti-McCain insurgents makings some noise”€”this is a very welcome site.

Festivities really got under way with Dick Cheney’s address. According to Senator Barrasso, who introduced the vice president, “€œtoday the C in CPAC stands for Cheney.”€ It’s perhaps too easy to quip that this line expresses the fact that over the past 6 years American conservatism has become synonymous with Bushism, in all its many forms, and that the C really does stand for Cheney”€”but I think this would be wrong. There were certainly some flag-pin wearing true believers in attendance but less than one would expect. Throughout Cheney’s speech the crowd gave proper standing ovations on cue to the typical “€œGo America!”€ lines”€” “€œWe”€™ll stay on the offensive on the war on terror!”€”€”and Cheney’s rhetorical question, “€œWould I support those same decisions [to invade Iraq etc.] today? You”€™re damn right I would!”€ Attendees clapped on cue when Cheney raised an eyebrow and scolded “€œpoliticians and flip-flops in Washington, DC.”€ (Are they really still attacking “€œflip-flops”€!?!)

But despite all this predictable stuff, the mood was undoubtedly less sanguine than in years past. Cheney’s ovations were warm, supportive”€”no dissents made themselves known”€”but then hardly thunderous, overwhelming, or cocky. It would be quite difficult for anyone there to imagine that conservatives are either in the political saddle or else that we”€™re witnessing onstage the embodiment of the movement. Cheney’s scolding of the Democratic Congress for “€œfiscal irresponsibility”€ is risible to say the least.

Cheney began his speech by telling an amusing story about running for his fifth term in the House in Wyoming: “€œI met a old cowboy with his hat pulled down over his head, and I said, “€˜I”€™m Dick Cheney and I”€™m running for Congress.”€™ The cowboy said, “€˜you”€™ve got my vote, the guy we have in there now’s a damn fool.”€™”€ There’s a hint that Cheney can actually present himself as a fairly interesting, Romantic “€œman from out West”€”€”a far more attractive persona than Darth Vader residing in an undisclosed bunker. Perhaps there’s actually more to this man. (Perhaps not)

These thoughts were forgotten when Cheney got down to business and spit out justifications for the occupation that curdled long ago. 

Cheney does seem to be quite happy with the GOP nominee. He mentioned “€œEarmarks”€ as a grave treat to the nation”€”if not quite a “€œtranscendent challenge.”€ The wink and nod to McCain was oblique but obvious enough. He must have be pleased with developments later that afternoon… 


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