VIRGINIA — As Senator Mitch McConnell pointed out in his address to the packed auditorium of the Crystal Gateway Marriot Saturday afternoon, 30 years ago, the conservative movement could fit into a large phone booth. An exaggeration but close enough for government work. In the intervening years, conservatives have gone from the “silent majority” to what some wag might call a very loud plurality.
He would mean loud in more than the auditory sense, of course. Walking down the aisles of the hundreds of exhibits in the 31st annual Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) convention, I encountered a gaudy riot of color. Booths dedicated to stamping out the estate tax were nestled in alongside exhibitors hawking Ann Coulter dolls and George W. Bush as Top Gun “action figures.” State think tanks competed for eyeshare with publishers of anti-Clinton books and several gun rights booths. One booth promoting traditional values had a bride in a white flowing wedding gown and a groom in a tux; gave out free wedding cake; and also had a troll toss game, where people could heft beanbags at toy trolls who held up signs including “gay marriage” and “Britney Spears.”
The upwards of 4,000 attendees carried blue with red and white lettering CPAC tote bags. College Republicans with American flag ties and “I Love George W. Bush” pins shuffled in and out of the hall, depending on who was speaking in the auditorium. Some old men in cowboy hats mingled with young debutantes-to-be, and old women wondered up to the ACLU booth to give the left-wing whippersnappers a good scolding.
On day one, dozens of Secret Service agents set up the portable metal detectors in preparation for Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit. Well-armed cops held the leashes to bomb-sniffing dogs, and techs fiddled with the sensitivity of the sensors as they tried to process a line that stretched back at least a quarter of a mile. One particularly zealous agent twice denied the Spectator crowd access, until another member of the earpiece brigade took him aside to explain that it was OK to give the press cuts to the front of the line.
Cheney began by pointing up the capture of Saddam Hussein, but he also hit some perennial favorites. He said Congress should make the Bush tax cuts permanent, pointing to last year’s gangbusters third quarter economic growth as “the results of the hard work of the American people, and of the sound policies of this administration.” The veep praised the ban on partial birth abortion on the 31st anniversary of Roe v. Wade. He argued that the Dems’ filibuster of Bush’s judicial nominees constituted “an abuse of the Constitutional process.” All of this met with loud cheers from this very true blue audience.
Or true red, given the current red state/blue state metaphysic. CPACers represent the right wing of the Republican Party: Without their votes, the Bush administration wouldn’t have a prayer come November. And so what this administration chooses to say to them, and refrain from saying, can be taken as good indicators for this year’s election and a still theoretical second term.
Thus RNC chair Ed Gillespie pledged the president’s support to the cause of stopping gay marriage by any means up to and including a constitutional amendment. He accused those who would impose gay marriage of “religious bigotry,” and railed against “unelected activist judges” in John Kerry’s home state. Mitch McConnell admitted that it was just awful to have lost the fight on campaign finance reform in the Supreme Court, but he hinted that this only provides more reason to vote for Bush: to appoint the kind of judges who may undo such rulings in the future.
There was no doubt some substantial criticism of Bush at points during the convention — a friend tells me that during the immigration set-to, columnist Michelle Malkin and Equal Rights Amendment slayer Phyllis Schlafly “laid the smackdown” on the pro-immigration panelists and it’s hard to imagine that not spilling over into anti-Bush territory — but never while I was present. At every turn, praise of the president consistently drew loud, sustained applause. The massive spending of the administration and the incremental (e.g., “slow”) approach to key conservative issues such as abortion have been accepted by these true, uh, red Republicans with mostly pro forma protest.