It was the start of another Conservative Political Action Conference--the annual gathering of several thousand activists--and Republican Party chairman Marc Racicot, in unexciting fashion, was telling the right-wingers his party would push the Bush agenda "in civil tones." Civil tones, though, are not usually embraced at CPACs, where attendees often denounce liberals as socialist buffoons, the media as a hotbed of anti-conservative bias and less-right Republicans as sellouts intimidated by the powers of a diabolical left. A year ago conservatives scuttled Racicot's appointment as Attorney General, claiming he was not sufficiently antiabortion. Now, as he spoke, the Rev. Lou Sheldon, a leading social conservative, told me he heartily approved of Racicot: "He makes the establishment happy, and he's telling us the party platform [against abortion] is not going to change in 2004." Is that enough for the religious right? Don't its members want to hear more social conservatism from George W? Nah, Sheldon replied. "He doesn't have to stroke us and then have James Carville beat him up for that. We're not going anywhere." He then applauded enthusiastically for Racicot.
Throughout CPAC, it was clear that Bush is aces with a mostly satisfied, still-going-strong conservative movement and that the ideologues of the right don't have much space to wage battles separate from Bush's agenda. David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, noted that conservatives currently have two concerns regarding the Administration. First, will it use the national security crisis to impede civil liberties more than necessary? Second, will it become enamored of government as a solution to ills beyond the war on terrorism? But no one at CPAC wanted to point fingers over such matters.
Conservatives seemed content to let Bush be Bush. Few CPACers called for pushing the Administration to do more to end abortion, or to beat back affirmative action, or to replace the income tax. When advocates criticized Bush policies, they did so without assailing Bush. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre soundly condemned the expansion of government power since September 11--"wand rape" at airports, "vast new powers" for the CIA, FBI e-mail intercepts--but he refused to blame Bush or Attorney General Ashcroft (both of whom have been slavish to the NRA on its core issue) for these liberty-threatening developments. Fiscal conservatives voiced anger over Bush's new budget for its overall increase of 9 percent (although it contains severe domestic cuts). "We do not need more money for Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, education," huffed Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute. "It's important we remain stalwarts of small government." But he did not attack the President or his aides. The war, Keene remarked, "takes the edge off the criticism of most conservatives. The first obligation of government is defense, and conservatives are happy to have a President who rises to the occasion. They are willing to put up with a lot to see that."
With a pro-gun, antiabortion, pro-tax cut, anti-Kyoto, pro-military guy riding high in the White House, CPACers appeared less crabby than in previous (Clinton-era) years. Still, there was the usual grousing that Democrats are better streetfighters than Republicans (I kid you not) and that the media are arrayed against conservatives. (Don't these people watch MSNBC, which now airs theocratic Republican Alan Keyes?) When a delegate asked Racicot about anti-Republican media bias, he griped that it's tough "to get a conservative message across," because that requires "a higher level of incisive analysis" and calls on people to engage in "a higher level of conduct." He added, "Children don't always like to hear what's passed on to them in terms of advice and counsel, and I think that's true with the conservative message."
Several speakers, including antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly, urged conservatives to mount a crusade against illegal aliens and to lobby for antiterrorism profiling focused on foreigners. (Right-wing strategist Grover Norquist, representing yay-for-cheap-labor and business-oriented conservatives, warned his comrades not to engage in activity that could alienate immigrant communities.) M. Stanton Evans, a founder of the modern conservative movement, suggested that the right could score points by decrying the "dismantling" of the national security system, which he attributed to political correctness. "CIA agents are sitting out in Langley," he explained, "sewing diversity quilts." (A CIA spokeswoman I contacted said its employees do not engage in the forced sewing of feel-good quilts. She noted that ten years ago a group of CIA employees who were quilting hobbyists fashioned a quilt on their own time.)
The tone was one of quiet triumphalism. Most speakers appeared in sync with Karl Rove's belief that voters will appreciate Bush's handling of the war and reward Republicans in this year's elections. Columnist Fred Barnes opined that it's silly to believe that Democrats can trump the war on terrorism with issues like the patients' bill of rights. Talking head Chris Matthews praised Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld as "grown-ups" who exude "authenticity" and poked Democrats as the party of "whining." But GOP political consultant Marc Rotterman voiced a note of caution, foreseeing a Democratic effort to "Enron this Administration" by accusing Bush of neglecting domestic concerns, being in league with big business and raiding Social Security. "At the end of the day," he observed, "the economy always comes into play. If we're still at slow growth rates, it will impact Congressional races. I am not sure Bush's popularity translates to the House and Senate races."
Still, as pollster Kellyanne Conway maintained, at this point conservatives have little grounds for worrying or complaining. "George W. Bush has been more Reagan than Bush. His record now is impervious to conservative criticism." Does that pose difficulty for the die-hard conservatives who might want more--or perhaps less--from Bush? "Well," she said with a wink, "for some conservatives it is easier to be against something. But they're going to have to wait."