Magazine article The American Conservative

Grand Old Party: High Spirits and Low Expectations at CPAC

Magazine article The American Conservative

Grand Old Party: High Spirits and Low Expectations at CPAC

Article excerpt

AT LAST YEAR'S Conservative Political Action Conference, a man in a dolphin suit stood outside the Omni Shoreham Hotel mocking Mitt Romney's flip-flopping on abortion, the Reagan presidency, and other issues dear to conservative hearts. Attendees loved him. This year, Flipper stood by himself in a hallway, his dorsal fin drooping, his plush head hanging--a year's worth of wear and tear. With John McCain on the verge of winning the Republican nomination, few of the conservatives at CPAC wanted to joke about Romney, in whom they had of late placed their hopes. And within a few hours of the start of the conference, both Romney and Flipper would need to find new lines of work.

The former Massachusetts governor was introduced by Laura Ingraham, who, clueless of the drama to come, waxed on about Romney as the "conservative's conservative" while enthusiastic supporters waved foam "Mitts." With trademark efficiency, he delivered a speech that served red meat with the regularity and forced sincerity of a Denny's waitress. On welfare and regulation, Romney said, "Dependency is culture killing." On family, he declared that the development of a child is "enhanced" by having a mother and father. "I wonder how it is that unelected judges, like some in my state of Massachusetts, are so unaware of this reality," he mused.

He compared his run against McCain to Reagan's campaign against the moderate Ford, but then declared that one issue trumped everything, even his own presidential ambitions: "There is an important difference from 1976. Today we are a nation at war." He explained that by fighting on to the convention, he would "forestall the launch of a national campaign and, frankly, I'd make it easier for Senator Clinton or Obama to win.... I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror." As disappointed fans filed out, organizers hauled out the campaign debris. Exit Romney faithful, enter McCainiacs. The transition took mere minutes.

Well aware that CPAC wasn't a natural constituency, McCain's campaign had loaded a double-barreled introduction: former Virginia senator George Allen, who but for three unfortunate syllables might have been in McCain's place, and Tom Coburn, arguably the Senate's most conservative member.

His credentials polished, McCain entered to orchestrated applause--the string of speakers preceding him had urged the crowd to mind its manners--and struck as conciliatory a tone as an old maverick can muster. "Many of you have disagreed strongly with some positions I have taken in recent years," he said. "I understand that.... And it is my sincere hope that even if you believe I have occasionally erred in my reasoning as a fellow conservative, you will still allow that I have, in many ways important to all of us, maintained the record of a conservative."

The reaction was mixed. The author of last year's wildly unpopular "comprehensive immigration reform" was roundly booed when he broached the subject of America's borders. But he knew how to win the audience back: "Whomever the Democrats nominate, they would govern this country in a way that will, in my opinion, take this country backward to the days when government felt empowered to take from us our freedom to decide for ourselves the course and quality of our lives." (Within the same paragraph, McCain inadvertently demonstrated the contradictions between the old Republican palaver about freedom and the demands of the war on terror saying, "It is shameful and dangerous that Senate Democrats are blocking an extension of surveillance powers." No line got louder applause.)

McCain may not have sealed the deal, but he got his foot in the door. Blogging for National Review, Stanley Kurtz wrote, "I thought McCain did an excellent job ... he won over most of the crowd."

While the establishment was upstairs coalescing around its unlikely champion, the full spectrum of the conservative grassroots was on display in the downstairs exhibition hall. …

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