Every conservative is now a compassionate conservative. Well, most were at the recent annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which drew more than 3,000 right-wing activists and leaders to a hotel outside Washington. A year ago George W. Bush was viewed with suspicion by many conservative honchos who worried that ideological wimpiness ran in the family and that Bush’s Compassionate Conservatism™ was a retreat from traditional conservatism. What a difference a butterfly ballot can make. At the confab Bush was embraced by this flock as one of their own, a politician who waged a masterful, conservative campaign and who–even better–has adopted as his role model not his pop but Ronald Reagan. Marc Holtzman, the Colorado secretary of technology, proclaimed that a “conservative revolution…is shaping America today.”
Had a county elections officer in Palm Beach not designed a confusing ballot, these cons probably would be whining about Bush and the wishy-washiness of compassionate conservatism. But winning–even by Supreme Court fiat–changes everything. And the attendees were delighted to grant Bush slack. They did not snipe at his tax-cut plan (too small and unrevolutionary for most of them), his education plan (which bolsters the Education Department rather than demolishes it and nudges school choice toward the back of the bus) or his military-spending plan (which includes a Pentagon raise but does not immediately shower the military with extra tens of billions of dollars). They’re willing to wait for Bush to score legislative wins before pressing Social Security privatization, and they’re content with an incremental approach to restricting abortion rights.
This usually cantankerous lot is saluting and following. Commentator Ann Coulter noted that Bush “could teach us a few things…. He discovered all you had to do was go around calling yourself nice…. Many of us took umbrage at that.” But it worked. Not everyone absorbed the lesson. Leftist-turned-rightist author David Horowitz urged Republicans to “stop being so polite.” Call the liberals what they truly are, he advised: “totalitarians.”
Still, the bitterness quotient at this CPAC was much lower than in previous years. No more Where’s Lee Harvey Oswald When You Need Him? bumper stickers. (Instead, one could buy Dixie Forever stickers–as speakers urged conservatives to reach out to blacks and Latinos.) Bill and Hillary Clinton received fewer jabs than expected. A group called America’s Survival did hand out a report on “Hillary Clinton’s Secret United Nations Agenda.” (Implement “world government…that will destroy American sovereignty and traditional families.”) Oliver North blasted the ex-President for pardoning Marc Rich, because Rich traded with hostage-holding Iran. (Did North forget he sent missiles to hostage-holding Iran?) Senator James Inhofe griped, “We have had a President who has given away or covered up [the illegal transfer of] virtually every secret in our nuclear arsenal.” Nevertheless, many CPACers appeared to believe it was time to move on.
But even as rightists control the White House and Congress, cons still claim they are besieged. Terry Jeffrey, the editor of Human Events, asserted that “the iron law of American journalism” still stands: “The most conservative candidate in any campaign will be demonized by the establishment press.” (Perhaps he ought to ask Al Gore about this.) Coulter, in all seriousness, said that Republicans and conservatives–in battling Democrats and liberals–“are always at a disadvantage because we won’t lie.” One activist complained that Democrats “with their talking points run circles around Republicans.” Another fretted that the GOP, up against a Democratic Party backed by organized labor, was “losing the ground campaign.” An NRA official had to remind him that the gun lobby runs its own ground campaign pretty darn well. Perhaps it’s tough to be in power when you’re accustomed to viewing yourself as a victim of persecution.
Of course, enemies abound. The National Right to Work Foundation’s Stefan Gleason reported that the AFL-CIO “has now embraced communist influences.” Senator Mitch McConnell noted that campaign finance reform is a plot mounted by Hollywood, academia and the media to “quiet your vote…[so] they’ll have more power.” The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre warned that the organizers of a UN conference on gun control “want the marvelous millennial youth [of the United States] not to be American citizens but global citizens…. I say never!” Andrea Sheldon Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition accused Planned Parenthood of defending abortion rights so it can make money selling fetal remains.
Fear and loathing continue, but Bush has tamed this fierce crowd. “The ideologically motivated in politics are often disappointed,” said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “But most conservatives are surprised they like Bush so much.” Marc Rotterman, a senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation, reflected the spirit of CPAC when he remarked, “We on the right need to give Bush a chance to develop a broad-based agenda. After 1994 we expected things to go too fast.” Now they watch Bush with hope, and they dare to believe.