Tears streaked the faces of the young conservative activists, heartbroken by the disastrous news.
It was Feb. 7 at the Omni Shoreham Hotel and I had stepped down to the exhibition hall where scores of attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference gathered in front of a large plasma TV. They watched in stunned disbelief as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney announced he was suspending his presidential campaign.
"If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win," Romney told the audience in a nearby ballroom, his speech relayed to the exhibition hall via closed-circuit TV. "And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror."
Some of those staring at the TV dabbed moisture from the corners of their eyes. Others just let the tears flow.
Scarcely an hour earlier, many of those same faces had been beaming with joy. The young volunteers swarmed over the hotel lobby, offering Romney lapel stickers to conferees arriving for the governor's CPAC speech. While they eagerly boosted their candidate, however, I was among the journalists scrambling to confirm the news that had just flashed over the Drudge Report: Romney would quit the race.
One of my friends was volunteering with Evangelicals for Mitt. As I crossed the lobby she grabbed my arm and asked: "Stacy, is it true?"
I explained the situation as I understood it at that point. My friend was flabbergasted. "But why? It doesn't make sense," she said. I agreed, but had no insight to offer, nor any consolation for her tears. And I had a story to file.
MEMORIES OF THAT FEBRUARY day at CPAC come back to me now as I contemplate the November debacle of the Republican Party. Many conservatives will inevitably feel rejected and dejected.
Try not to take it personally. You did not lose this election.
Perhaps the most important statistic for conservatives to keep in mind today -- as pundits pore over and pour out exit-poll data to tell us What It Means -- is this: 53 percent of Republican primary voters did not vote for John McCain.
While the Democratic struggle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton captured all the headlines during the primary season, few pundits noticed the massive Republican resistance to McCain's nomination.
For example, on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, McCain got 33 percent of the primary vote in Missouri, 32 percent in Tennessee and Georgia; in caucuses that day, he got 22 percent in the Minnesota and 19 percent in Colorado. McCain's share of the total Republican primary vote through Super Tuesday was only 39 percent.
Nor did the resistance end after McCain's most formidable rival, Mitt Romney, called it quits Feb. 7. As late as May 20 -- by which time McCain had been the de facto nominee for more than two months -- 28 percent of voters in the Kentucky GOP primary cast their ballots for other candidates or voted "uncommitted."
Conservatives who sought to prevent McCain's nomination cannot be blamed for his defeat. And it is his defeat, not yours.
Ideologues tend to see election results in ideological terms. Right now, "progressives" are congratulating themselves on the triumph of progressivism. But Obama will be the next president because millions of non-ideological "swing" voters -- those I call the Ordinary Americans -- saw him as the superior candidate. A vote for him was not, in the eyes of those key voters, an endorsement of any ideology.
Yes, "Bush fatigue" was part of what happened Tuesday. Yes, Republican "brand damage" is a real phenomenon. But if you've ever talked to a true independent voter, you know their mantra: "I don't vote for the party. I vote for the man."
Good candidates win elections, and bad candidates lose. John McCain was a bad candidate and he lost. Those who try to put an ideological spin on this election will miss that basic point.
Don't blame yourself, and don't listen to the pundits who are trying to spin Tuesday's result as demonstrating the failure of conservatism. The only failure of conservatism in this election cycle was the failure to produce a consensus alternative to McCain.
Last night, at an Election Night party at the National Taxpayers Union in Alexandria, Va., none of the conservative activists were in tears over McCain's defeat -- although some of them were among the same Romney supporters who'd cried when their candidate quit in February.
What I saw last night was a clear-eyed determination to move forward with the conservative agenda in the Obama era. As Paul Jacobs of Citizens in Charge told me, "We've got 'em right where we want 'em.… There is no way that Obama and the Democrats can live up to expectations."
Dry it up and move forward. We're at rock bottom, with nowhere to go but up.
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