One recent night in the nation's capital, at a restaurant near the campus of George Washington University, veteran conservative journalist Michael Barone had dinner with an important official of the free-market group Americans for Limited Government and a few of that official's friends.
A few weeks earlier, the same ALG official had attended a reception at a Capitol Hill restaurant, hosted by an important official of the Heritage Foundation and featuring as guest of honor David Frum, the former Bush White House speechwriter and author whose career has lately become more controversial than ever.
Controversies aside, however, these two recent events were in some sense more significant than the regular routine of social occasions collectively known as the Beltway "cocktail party circuit."
For while the ALG official and the Heritage official need not be named here -- these two events were outside their strictly official duties -- they have something important in common: Both of them are in their early 20s and were college students as recently as last year.
Something else they have in common: I got to know both of these officials when they were undergraduate campus activists with the Young America's Foundation, which this week convenes its annual four-day National Conservative Student Conference at the GWU campus in Foggy Bottom.
At a time when the question of conservatism's future is a topic of intense debate among senior leaders of the movement, YAF continues quietly recruiting, educating and organizing the movement's junior leaders. What is surprising is the extent to which these young people -- some scarcely a year past college commencement -- are not merely the clichéd "leaders of tomorrow," but are already becoming recognized as leaders today.
Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) was walking through a corridor on Capitol Hill one day in March when he was approached by a well-dressed young man who wanted to ask a question: "You know, I was wondering, with Americans struggling just to pay their bills, losing their jobs, why…do you drive a taxpayer-subsidized Cadillac, score rent-controlled apartments below market rates, and fail to pay taxes on real estate -- when you write the tax code?"
This was Rangel's introduction to YAF spokesman Jason Mattera, age 25, who had an assistant recording the encounter on video when Rangel responded: "Why don't you mind your god---- business?"
Mattera seems to have been born with a special talent for driving liberals nuts. One recent example: After Mattera mocked the "wise Latina" posturing of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, he was denounced by various left-wingers whose predictable accusations of bigotry exposed their own abject ignorance.
Jason is himself a Latino, of Puerto Rican ancestry just like Judge Sotomayor and, as a native of Brooklyn, equally entitled to claim the supposedly wisdom-inferring urban authenticity of being a "Newyorican." Unlike the Bronx-born judge, however, Mattera doesn't flaunt any sense of ethnic entitlement and rejects identity politics as unpatriotic.
"What's wrong with just being an American like everybody else?" he says. "So you're Puerto Rican -- so what?"
It was Mattera's contempt for check-the-box "diversity" quotas that inspired one of his earliest experiences with provoking paroxysms of liberal indignation. As an undergrad at Rhode Island's Roger Williams University 2005, he and fellow conservative students promoted a "whites-only scholarship" as a parody of the university's affirmative-action policies. That project resulted, among other things, in the university chapter of College Republicans being defunded and denounced by the state GOP.
"I was always taught to defend my ideas fiercely, but I also like to have fun at the Left's expense," Mattera says. "Young America's Foundation helped nurture and guide my activism at Roger Williams. They gave me the tool necessary to advance my ideas in a hostile environment."
That fierce commitment in a hostile environment is part of what YAF hopes to instill in the hundreds of attendees at this week's conference, which will feature lectures by, among others, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Seattle talk-radio host Kirby Wilbur, America's Cause president Bay Buchanan, Human Events editor Jed Babbin, Robert Spencer of JihadWatch.com, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), talk radio host Monica Crowley, former House Speaker and author Ann Coulter.
This week's conference in D.C. "gives us the opportunity to teach young people core conservative principles of limited government, free enterprise and traditional values," Mattera says. "We have 40 students who are eager to hear conservative ideas seldom taught in the classroom. Not all young people are entranced with Obama."