In football, if your team wins the game, homecoming is where you savor the victory, spray champagne on your teammates, recount the winning touchdown and gloat about crushing your opponents. This Presidents' Day weekend GOP homecoming was . . . different. The 28th Annual Conservative Political Action Conference, held in the Marriott in Arlington, Virginia -- one of the largest annual gatherings of conservatives -- was as paranoid as it was vindictive.
Inside the speaker's auditorium, it was as if Republicans were still out there on the field nervously looking for some Democrats to clobber. The schedule featured panel discussions, defensively titled, "How Bush Can Fight the PR Assault from the Left," "Republican Control of the Government: Can It Last?" and "De-funding the Left." House Majority Whip Tom DeLay's screed was titled, "Bipartisanship? The View From The House." All this begged a simple question: With Republicans in control of the presidency, both houses of Congress, and -- apparently -- the Supreme Court, why the bunker mentality?
Perhaps it could be the guilty conscience associated with having assumed the presidency without a popular mandate, I thought. Or maybe after eight years of getting walloped by Bill Clinton at almost every turn (okay, well, lots of turns), these attack dogs have no idea how to rule gracefully.
Without a nemesis in the White House, conservatives hunkered down to hunt and kill the enemy within. The new scumbag? John McCain. Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell proudly announced to thunderous applause why he had filibustered campaign finance reform in the Senate: "No one's ever won on that issue. McCain-Feingold ranks right up there with Americans' concern for static cling." At a luncheon, The National Review distributed copies of the magazine with the cover story entitled, "The Spoiler: John McCain's Angry Crusade."
In addition to McCain bashing, conservatives used their speeches to beat some long-dead horses.
Barbara Olson, author of Hell to Pay: The Unfolding Story of Hillary Rodham Clinton introduced Robert Bork, who had been a professor at Yale Law School when Hillary Clinton was a student there: "I asked Bork about Hillary, and he said, 'She wasn't necessarily a student, but she did attend my classes.'"
Gary Kreep of the U.S. Justice Foundation quipped, "When my wife's mother was in a coma, we left the TV on the Bork nomination hearings. She woke up soon afterwards." Hating Whitey author David Horowitz even ranted about Chappaquidick.
After milking the Marc Rich tempest for all he could, the (unpardoned) Oliver North resurrected the pre-Clintonian bogey -- communism. North proclaimed, "The adversary against which we must arm ourselves is communist China!" After the applause died down, North gloated, "I said the dirty two words that no one else wants to speak."
Coming of age during the Clinton era, young conservatives too seemed to have learned to oppose, not propose. When a Cornell Review writer accosted me in the lounge, passing out invites for a party that the New York delegation of college Republicans was throwing that night (Hotel staffers broke up the party at about 9 o'clock), I asked what he liked to cover:
"Oh, anti-gay stuff."
"Yeah, I just don't think they should protest."
"How did you become a Republican?"
"I read the Cornell Review and agreed with everything they said."
"Any specific issues?"
"I can't remember. Oh actually, the anti-gay stuff."
Upon tedious questioning, I eventually found out that this student also opposed taxes, affirmative action, environmental regulations, and gun control. But he, like so many other students there, was flustered by the question of what he actually favored.
The same was true in the ideology fair going on in one of the ballrooms. Represented were Regent University (a college established for conservatives), the Second Amendment Sisters and an organization that posted a large banner proclaiming in dactylic meter, "Family values forever, gay rights never!"
The staffer at the 60 Plus Association seeking to eliminate the inheritance tax invited me to join. When I argued that I am far from 60, he looked at me wistfully and said it was never too early to start fighting taxes. "Don't you at least want to participate in our slogan writing contest for the best slogan against the death tax? I'll warn you though that Steve Forbes's 'No taxation without respiration!' is a tough act to follow."
College and high school students wearing "Impeach Hillary" buttons held their own luncheon at the Young America's Foundation, featuring Jonah Goldberg from The National Review. (Goldberg is also the son of Linda Tripp's vicious gossip-dishing book agent Lucianne Goldberg.) During the question and answer session students asked, among other things, "How do we rebut the liberals who are our peers -- the ones who say that George W. Bush is not our president?" Goldberg's answer: "If your opponent is making a jackass out of himself, let him. Also, mocking helps."
Vice President Dick Cheney tried in vain to indoctrinate the crowd with the new administration's talking points. "The days of the so-called war room and the permanent campaign are over," Cheney pronounced. "This president and this administration are going to change the tone in the city of Washington." Perhaps in Washington, but not in the Mariott in Arlingon, Virginia. Here, it seemed, the war had just begun.
The contrast between Cheney's compassion-oozing and the rest of the conferees' venom-spewing seemed utterly baffling. But Chuck Cunningham of the National Rifle Association finally made it all clear. Cheney's speech would be nationally televised, while the rest of the conference was mostly geared towards the hard-core attendees. Said Cunningham in a statement captured by National Public Radio: "Fear does excite people more than optimism. And for that reason, some conservative groups didn't fare too well amongst the Reagan years because they lost donors and members because there was a perception that the dragon was slain." So for the sake of the faithful, revive the dragon. Long live the dragon.