A group of brothers are playing in the back yard. An overbearing parent will step in and separate them at the first sign of roughhousing. A negligent parent will let one of them snap his younger brother's neck in two. Most parents fall somewhere between those extremes, intuitively understanding that play-fighting is an important and healthy part of child development but that children need to be stopped from hurting each other. It can be hard to know when to draw the line; it's quite common to see child care providers thoughtfully comparing notes on the topic.
The Conservative Political Action Conference is, by its nature, a place for some friendly intellectual roughhousing. Every flavor of foreign policy philosophy is represented, libertarians mix it up with social conservatives, different visions of immigration reform duke it out, and so forth. This year there was the added catalyst of the presidential race, and it made the roughhousing especially rough.
Naturally, John McCain took some hits for snubbing the conference; he was the only major candidate who didn't show up. Someone was passing around a flyer depicting an attendance record for McCain: absent from the National Review Institute's Conservative Summit in January, absent from the Heritage Foundation's Members' Retreat last month, absent from CPAC, present for Late Night With David Letterman. (Though the flyer was unlabeled, it presumably came from a fan of Mitt Romney, the only candidate who courted conservatives at all three of the events McCain skipped.) McCain showed poorly in the CPAC straw poll, and his name was booed when the results were read.
There was somewhat less sniping at Rudy Giuliani, though there were a few printouts of an article highlighting his more un-conservative positions floating around. When he was attacked, it was usually in the context of rejecting Giuliani, McCain, and Romney as a package; one sticker that was being passed out had a strike through the words “Rudy McRomney.”
Romney took by far the most heat, a testament to the calculation of candidates like Sam Brownback that taking him out is the key to moving into the top tier. There was a man in dolphin suit walking around during the conference, with a shirt labeled “FLIP ROMNEY: Just Another FLIP-FLOPPER From Massachusetts,” and there were flimsy sandals — flip-flops, get it? — with attacks on Romney printed on them. As Romney schmoozed bloggers in the event hall, Brownback supporters followed him around shouting — even when he was talking to a child.
Did the nastiness go too far? As with the brothers in the back yard, it's a tough judgment call. Some people I spoke to were put off by the tone; others took the view that argument is healthy and politics ain't beanbag. One could have no doubt after this conference, though, that conservatives now are sharply divided — and they have no one with the gravitas of a parent figure to step in and break up the fights.
John Tabin is a frequent online contributor to The American Spectator and