Campaign Crawlers

Party Time for the Right

Are conservatives celebrating too soon?

By 2.22.10

Reagan Palooza 2010 kept cranking into the wee hours of Sunday morning on Capitol Hill. Young right-wingers were jammed onto the upstairs dance floor of the Hawk 'n' Dove where they partied past midnight after the final day of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.

The fire-code capacity crowd was drenched in sweat as they writhed rhythmically to the thunderous bass beats pumped out by the sound system beneath the strobing disco lights. Several of the 20-somethings were singing along to the lyrics -- "This is all so crazy, everybody seems so famous" -- when investigative reporter Matthew Vadum nudged me and shouted into my ear, "This is that Hannah Montana song." Further research (which is to say, a phone call to my daughter, a college junior) confirmed that the reggae-inflected tune was in fact performed by Miley Cyrus, the teenage star of the popular Disney TV series.

"Party in the USA" was certainly appropriate as the soundtrack for this year's CPAC, where conservatives signaled that they have regained the confidence they lost in the debacle of 2008.

Young and old at CPAC seemed energized by harbingers that the 2010 mid-term elections will produce a GOP triumph, but at least one middle-aged Republican was hesitant to accept the most favorable interpretation of the auspices and omens.

"Frankly, I'm worried," David Frum said at an earlier Saturday gathering at Murphy's Grand Irish Pub near the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel that hosted the record-breaking three-day conference. "But then again, I'm always worried."

It was a self-deprecating jest with strategic significance. For months, Frum has been pessimistic about the conservative movement's confrontational strategy to sparking a quick Obama-era bounce-back, similar to the GOP's historic gains in the 1994 "Contract With America" campaign. This has put the former Bush speechwriter at odds with most on the Right. Last year's CPAC keynote speech by Rush Limbaugh was enthusiastically applauded by attendees but denounced by Frum as "rancorous."

Little rancor was in evidence at Murphy's Saturday evening, where Frum and his wife Danielle Crittenden provided free draft beer for a diverse collection of young conservatives. Obviously, CPAC organizers hadn't heeded Frum's criticisms -- following up on last year's Limbaugh appearance with a keynote spot for Glenn Beck -- but if Frum has lost an argument over the conservative movement's rhetorical tone and strategy, he at least was determined to be gracious in defeat.

There still remains the question of whether the past year's Tea Party uprising can be translated into GOP victory this November. If the populist approach fails to produce major electoral gains for Republicans, Frum and others who have consistently criticized those figures beloved by the grassroots Right -- Beck, Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Sarah Palin and others -- will be quick to say, "We told you so." So far, however, conservatives demanding head-on confrontation with the Obama agenda have every reason to believe that their strategy is working.

Over and over on the CPAC stage, speakers referenced last year's Republican wins in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections -- and especially the  emphatic punctuation of Scott Brown's Massachusetts victory in January -- as proof that voters are ready to elect GOP candidates who offer a conservative antidote to the poison of progressivism.

Beck's Saturday chalkboard talk on that topic involved blunt criticism of a Republican establishment. In his closing-night speech, the popular Fox News host accused the GOP of having become "addicted to spending and big government." Beck's diagnosis was applauded by the crowd at CPAC, swollen to record levels this year by the addition of many first-time attendees from the Tea Party movement. This injection of new blood may have had something to do with the conference's presidential straw-poll result, in which Republican Rep. Ron Paul scored a surprising 31 percent plurality. The Texas libertarian is almost certainly not going to be the 2012 GOP nominee, but his support in the CPAC poll was indicative of conservatives' desire to return to a message of limited government and fiscal responsibility.

Finding the right messengers for that message was one major task that the conference aimed to accelerate. Congressional and senatorial candidates were ubiquitous at CPAC, shaking hands and passing out business cards, a process that continued even amid the Reagan Palooza crowds.

Les Phillip, a primary challenger to party-switcher Parker Griffith in Alabama's 5th District, also showed up at the Hawk 'n' Dove to meet and mingle with the young activists. (One Republican National Committee staffer was required to point out that party rules strictly prohibit interactions between RNC staff and candidates in contested primaries.) Phillip didn't go upstairs for the disco scene, however, and there were no such rules forbidding him from chatting up Christopher Malagisi of the Young Conservatives Coalition, which sponsored the Saturday night event.

Malagisi was proud to display the slogan on the back of his Reagan Palooza T-shirt -- "Drink One for the Gipper" -- and that mood of cheerful celebration was in spectacular abundance upstairs where the lights pulsed to the bass-heavy rhythm.

Somewhere in that throbbing mass of humanity was another GOP candidate. He'd earlier explained to me that he had worn out three pairs of shoes during his campaign so far. He was breaking in his fourth pair on the dance floor.

A couple hours later, the lobby of the Marriott was nearly deserted, and a few conservative college students clustered at one table. In their midst was one recent graduate, Will Gregory. At the ripe old age of 24, Gregory is a Republican candidate in Connecticut's 4th congressional district.

Can such a youngster actually win? That would be the kind of shocking upset that only happens when one party scores a massive electoral landslide. If that's what happens this November, it would spark a GOP celebration more frenzied than even that crowd at Reagan Palooza could imagine.

Election Day is still eight months away, and there will be a lot of hard work required to make that kind of "Party USA" happen.

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