Political Hay

The Other CPAC

 What critics of the giant conservative event missed.

By 3.13.09

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What is it about hard-won success that inspires petty souls to carping criticism and hostility? Ann Coulter is the author of seven best-selling books. Rush Limbaugh is the most successful radio broadcaster of the modern era. And yet to hear some Republicans tell it, Coulter and Limbaugh are an unmitigated liability to the GOP and the conservative cause.

Since the conclusion of last month's Conservative Political Action Conference -- where both Coulter and Limbaugh spoke to cheering crowds -- these two prominent personalities have been singled out for attacks by some Republicans.

Scarcely had the applause ended for Limbaugh's hour-plus speech Feb. 28 in the Regency Ballroom of Washington's Omni Shoreham Hotel than Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News pronounced the radio talk king as having promulgated "false conservatism" that was not founded on "bedrock truths of philosophical conservatism."

Apparently concerned that he might be eclipsed in Rush-bashing, David Frum took to the pages of Newsweek to pronounce Limbaugh "a walking stereotype of self-indulgence," who "cannot be allowed to be the public face of the [Republican] enterprise."

Coulter's speech this year produced none of those "she said what?" moments that had marked her 2006 and 2007 CPAC speeches, causing conference organizers to exclude her from their 2008 schedule. Yet an improvement in Coulter's decorum did nothing to spare her from disparagement by Sen. John McCain's daughter. At Tina Brown's site, the Daily Beast, Meghan McCain called Coulter "offensive, radical, insulting, and confusing…the poster woman for the most extreme side of the Republican Party."

Why would people identifying themselves as Republicans savage these two popular conservative celebrities in such terms? Various explanations have been offered, none fully satisfactory. Still harder to fathom were those who disparaged CPAC itself as symptomatic of conservative failure.

In a column at Pajamas Media -- whose online video adjunct PJTV sponsored "Conservatism 2.0" events during CPAC -- blogger Rick Moran wrote, "Conservatism has become loud, obnoxious, closed-minded, and puerile," characterized by "a vicious parochialism that eschews debate."

Moran's denunciation was too much for fellow blogger Jimmie Bise, Jr., who responded with a post titled, "A Tale of Two CPACs," saying: "The conservatism I saw at CPAC was not measurably different than it was when William F. Buckley planted his feet athwart history and shouted 'stop.'"

Bise had a point. The overwhelming majority of those who attended CPAC -- and with more than 8,000 on hand, it was easily the largest in the 35-year history of the conference -- seemed abundantly pleased. "Energized" was a word often heard from attendees, and the massive television coverage for Limbaugh's speech that concluded the conference (carried live by Fox News, CNN and C-SPAN) was a tremendous publicity coup.

What separated the pleasant experience of the majority, who applauded Coulter and Limbaugh and enjoyed the conference, and the dissatisfied misery of the critics?

Partly, it was ideological. Meghan McCain declared herself a "progressive Republican" -- whatever that means in 2009 -- while Dreher became famous for his 2006 book, Crunchy Cons, which denounced "Western economics" as motivated chiefly by "greed and envy."

Envy? One could hardly blame authors like Dreher and Frum (who has written six books) for envying the best-selling success of Coulter. Yet for all her success and fame, Coulter's income is probably only a fraction of that earned by Limbaugh, who last year signed an eight-year contract for a reported $400 million.

It is possible to detect a common refrain that the conservatism the critics didn't like is "angry" or "loud,"  that CPAC was promulgating an "orthodoxy" (Dreher) or "ideological purity" (Moran), or that "Limbaugh demands absolute deference" (Frum).

The critics, we might generalize, want a more amorphous conservative that speaks in mild, measured tones. Older readers will be forgiven if such criticisms sound familiar, resembling the Eisenhower-era "modern Republicanism" -- a go-along, get along stance rejected by conservative insurgents in the 1960s, who demanded "a choice, not an echo," in Phyllis Schlafly's famous phrase.

Daunted by Democratic victories in 2006 and '08, and by President Obama's personal popularity, many of the critics doubt that the basic conservative message can produce GOP victories in 2010 or '12.

There is something else, too: Hostile media coverage of CPAC portrayed a distorted image of the event. One person involved in staging the conference told me that, if all you knew about CPAC was what you consumed from the mainstream media, you might be excused for believing that Joe "the Plumber" Wurzelbacher and 13-year old Jonathan Krohn were the de facto leaders of conservatism.

Republicans out of power today are no more loud and angry than the Democrats of 2005 who, in the wake of Sen. John Kerry's presidential defeat, installed Howard Dean as DNC chairman and demanded that the party fight more aggressively. However, liberal media coverage has a way of making loud, angry Republicans seem scarier than loud, angry Democrats.

Finally, most of the "energized" rank-and-file CPACers believed that the basic conservative message is sound, and believed that those like Coulter and Limbaugh who advocate the basic message are on the right track. The critics -- Frum, Dreher, Moran, Meghan McCain and others -- all want a conservatism that is somehow different from the basic message.

Given the small-"d" democratic nature of coalition politics, the basic-message conservative majority is in no danger of losing out to the disgruntled minority. But the disgruntled few remain disgruntled, spreading demoralization, despair and defeatism where confidence and good cheer might otherwise flourish.

If they can't be winners, they don't want you to win either.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.