As far as conservatives are concerned, 2012 is the year of anger and authenticity.
That’s the apparent theme this year as conservatives converged and rallied about Washington, D.C. last week for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference – otherwise affectionately known to them and infamously derided by the left as “CPAC.” There are a number of meanings to CPAC, none as prominent as a chance for proud right-wingers of different ages and multiple stripes to meet, break bread and unify around a collective political message. But, the annual confab of red-meat values and no liberal-veggies-allowed holds even greater significance this year as Republican presidential primary candidates duke it out in the race for delegates.
Optically, the CPAC is an opportunity for conservatives, young and old, to rip off their shirts and perform a public toga party, including – but not limited to – bare-bottomed mooning of the “liberal elite media” and the rest of that pesky progressive crowd. But, it’s also a moment when establishment Republicans find creative ways to further co-opt the conservative brand, a quiet hacking of the red state movement through no-expense-spared messaging and a starting line-up of celebrities on the right.
The objective: defeat President Barack Obama in November.
That goal, given the rancor of the Republican primary season, may be a bit more difficult than previous years. But, it’s no coincidence that despite the grassroots flavor and on-the-street confetti feel that CPAC typically embodies, the annual conference showcased a Who’s Who of Republican lawmakers: from Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) and Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) fresh off the campaign trail, to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Virginia Attorney General Anthony Cucinelli; there was also Latino political sensation and whispered Vice Presidential running mate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), joined by the Black Falcon of the Right, Rep. Allen West (R-FL). The list went on, a roll call of longtime Republican hacks, activists, honorees and wise men – all coming to Washington to kiss the conservative ring and lick the Tea Party boot.
And while their passion for President Obama’s demise was the unifying theme or glue that held it all together, it was the unspoken return of the Republican Order, the Council of Party Sages slamming their gavels and putting rowdy conservatives on notice: “Get it together or we’ll be losing in November.”
Republican Psychology 101: Republicans love to win.
But, the road to Tampa Bay this summer, where the Republican National Convention is scheduled to take place, is now very ugly and strewn with the road kill of gaffes, attack ads and the emergence of Super PACs glowing like Death Stars over a George Lucas movie set. As CPAC shows, it represents an uncomfortable dawning of a new era for the Republican Party and also the national political landscape this November.
An evolution is definitely taking place, and what’s unclear is whether or not it’s setting the stage for a White House comeback in 2012 or a long road to a conservative reset in time for 2016. Many observers compare this year’s GOP primary to the bloody one of 1976 when then Gov. Ronald Reagan (R-CA) prolonged all-out internal war on incumbent President Gerald Ford. It left Ford so disoriented and exhausted that he ended up losing to Democrat Jimmy Carter.
But, Reagan returned like the Jedi in 1979 to pummel an incumbent, one-term President Carter and lead the country for two entire terms.
“This is a recalibration,” pondered one sweaty Republican strategist making a quick lunch run only moments away from the Marriott Wardman Park hotel in Northwest D.C. “Frankly, I’m not so sure about 2012 like the party faithful. But, what we’re doing now is necessary. It’s an exorcism that will put us in a good spot after Obama leaves in 2016.”
That exorcism is characterized by conversations over authenticity and pure Constitutionalism (despite calls to change amendments … in the Constitution). A moment where conservative politicians are feeling out the grassroots and attempting to burnish their ideological credentials. And the grassroots is not making it easy.
“The Republican Party had better understand here that the people who are not voting for Romney are not doing it because I’m telling them to,” boasted Rush Limbaugh during a radio segment earlier in the week. “They’re doing it because they genuinely have a problem with Romney. The establishment had better wake up and understand that Republican primary voters are doing this not just to stick a finger in the eye of the establishment, not just to be frivolous here. They’re sending a message.”
As soon as the Department of Labor unemployment numbers found their way into the market conscious and floated away, Republicans were pulling out the social issue guns with gusto, eager to pounce on the President and Congressional Democrats. It’s easier to energize the base by dusting off battle hymns from the “Culture Wars” than it is articulating a counter-vision for an improving economic outlook.
“It’s the 21st century and we need jobs. GOP, do you really want to spend the next 11 months talking about birth control?” asked a bewildered Stephanie Schirock, President of EMILY’s List, on Twitter.
Apparently yes. As if on cue, headlines and cable cameras began to pull the “Culture Wars” back into focus, a term the general public hadn’t heard for quite some time. One day the Susan G. Komen Foundation was pulling funding from Planned Parenthood, the next day it was a Crusades on Capitol Hill against the Affordable Care Act’s provisions forcing contraceptives on religious institutions. No sooner had the first missiles in Culture War redux been fired than a dramatic ruling by a California federal appeals court overturned Proposition 8, the referendum on same-sex marriage in the state. Putting a cherry on the top of it was CNN’s suspension of contributor and TV One talk host Roland Martin after he came under fire from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) for posting Super Bowl tweets about David Beckham underwear ads.
While it all left heads spinning, it was very real. Wedge issues made a comeback with a funky vengeance, a crazy emotional soup of catcalls, nasty adjectives and partisan name calling. Prior to the right wing pow wow of CPAC, it seems conservatives were using the primaries as platforms to that end, searching for the right candidate to push that message. It was all topped off by the mid-week with stunning come-from-behind GOP primary caucus victories by former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), the animated, a-hundred-blinks-a-minute conservative with the working class story that beat all other three Republican candidates combined.
“People want a nominee who doesn’t just talk a good conservative game, but actually lives it,” said Santorum. “And has the record to prove it.”