March 20th, 2010

An Englishman at CPAC

By Timothy Stanley.

Timothy Stanley reports from the front lines of the Conference for Conservative Activists in Washington, D.C.


I am here in Washington DC at a revolutionary moment. The Tea Party has come to town and hijacked the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Women with stately hairdos share the cameras with men in George Washington wigs. One revolutionary rings a bell and cries, “The British are coming! The British are coming.”

"Actually, I’ve already arrived," I say curtly, tapping my crocodile suitcase with my toe. Foreigners, snobs, liberals, do-gooders, moderates, Democrats, Marxists, bankers and flaneurs are not welcome at the Washington Marriott this February. The rooms are booked-out with real Americans.

This is how the media reports it and it is, in fact, a scam. The Tea Partiers are not new to this convention - they are old hands. At a panel on Tea Party activism, each speaker introduced herself (and they were all women) as “an ordinary wife and mother.” But their convention-guide CVs revealed how extraordinary they really are. “I’m just a housewife from Missouri,” said one (a former PA to Majority Leader John Boehmer). “I have two great kids and a loving husband,” said another (a former office manager to former Majority Leader Dick Armey). This army of ordinary, independent citizens, it turns out, is exactly the same army of conservatives who hated Clinton, hated Gore and hated Kerry. Year after year they’ve been coming to this conference and venting their spleen against big government. But what makes this year different from all others is that they are winning the argument and that the media is paying attention. That’s what makes the atmosphere so potent. There’s an “I told you so” mood in the air, and it’s directed at the press box that hangs above the conference hall. Righteousness is a dangerous quality. When it’s proven right, it’s dynamite.

Conventions are all the same, be it Republican or Star Trek: long hours spent waiting for Captain Kirk to appear. We are all squeezed into the hall, cheek by jowl, breathing in each other’s sweat and nicotine. I tried always to sit next to the woman with a terrier on her lap. The dog wore a stars and stripes kerchief and it liked to nibble at my laces. First came the lower ranks of speakers - the Chekovs and Sulus of the GOP. They warmed us up in the front rows with slogans and hot spit. “Welcome to the vast right wing conspiracy!” they cried. “We are Right because we are right!” “Come on in Obama, your time is up!” Some pulled off genuine surprises (Liz Cheney produced her father and brought the hall to its feet. Dick looked oddly… bashful) but mostly they were there to raise our heckles and crank up the tension. There wasn’t much anticipation for Mitt Romney. Handsome, tanned, his arms strapped to his sides as if he were frightened of raising them too high and toppling over. America is a corporation, he said, “And I’m an experienced CEO”. With a little focus and some tough decisions, we could turn this Toys R Us we call America around. His examples? Bill Gates and Microsoft (true), Richard Branson and Virgin (yes, but no one actually likes the man), Sam Walton and Walmart (uh-huh, so no unions then) and Walt Disney and Disneyland (ah but, Mitt, Walt wasn’t exactly an equal opportunity employer). I’m a true believer and it strikes me that Mitt Romney is just good looking, charming and rich enough to be the Antichrist.

By the second day, it became obvious whom we were really waiting for. Enough Sam Adams had been drunk to give the hall the odour of a hop field. People were on edge. The room began to fill up with expectant students in blazers. Unruly hair and spots, usually the signs of a campus riot, were tamed by ties and polite voices. But there was a tremor of heat from beneath the stalls. They had ridden miles and miles by Greyhound and Delta to see their man. Not even conservative centrefold Scott Brown could distract them.

It all started when someone shouted, “Where’s Ron Paul?!” “Yeah!” replied a couple of others and a whole row rose to its feet and cheered. The rebellion fell quickly, but the whispers and twitches stretched out through the hall like ripples on a pond. “Where is he, where is he?” whispered the man next to me. “Where is he, where is he?” said the people all around. The terrier nibbled at its tail.

He was there, waiting for us behind the stage - we suspected that much. In a millisecond of panic, the Chair looked over her shoulder. We got the hint and cheered. Hands slapped thighs. Feet kicked the ground. I clapped and clapped and the man next to me got on his feet. An ominous murmur grew into a quake from the back row: “We want Ron! We want Ron! We want Ron!” Louder and louder it grew ‘til it was feedback on the mike, echoing through the TV cameras and lashing out into the snowstorm outside. By the time it hit us in the front seats it was a force of nature; irresistible and terrible. It flung me up onto my feet - propelling me forward into the zeitgeist. “I want Ron!” I cried. I was not alone. The kinetic pull of the man behind the curtain snapped us up and down, up and down, up and down. The Chair raised her arms, but on it came. “We want Ron! We want Ron! We want Ron!” Before I even knew what I was doing, I was part of a current of hate and love breaking against the stage. “We want Ron! We want Ron! We want Ron!” I was part of something now. For the first time in my life, I was a fish in a shoal - drowning and waving and loving every minute of it.

* * *

I have to concede to future historians that the Ron Paul forces were not as big as the heat they generated. Sure, Paul got a good reception in the hall and won the straw poll the next day. But a Paulite youth group had piggybacked onto the convention and helped manufacture the result. Also, while Paul was speaking, Ann Coulter was downstairs signing her book. All the Evangelicals and neocons were in line, oblivious to the revolution going on above their heads.

The Paul people were a strange crowd. They are a volatile mixture of Old Right paleocons - who number into the dozens - and an angry army of young people who have read too much Ayn Rand. By coming together they have transformed themselves into a peace movement - but not as we normally know it. The Ron Paul revolution belongs on the campus, among crusty professors and libertarian college Republicans. It can move fast, create noise and steal the show, but it has never won a caucus or a primary. I suspect, too, that the Paulites would fall apart if only one half of its coalition spent five minutes talking to the other. Little do the kids realise that Ron Paul supports a federal ban on abortion, immigration control and traditional marriage. Little do the funky oldsters realise that Ron Paul has dropped his life long support of the death penalty and allowed his agenda to be seized by internet porn-peddlers and atheists.

But Paul is a symptom of a wider problem. The conservative movement is far more divided than people appreciate. Its three amigos (social traditionalists, hawkish neocons and libertarians) share an abhorrence for Obama but differ on the details. During one panel on youth activism, two “future leaders” nearly came to blows over homosexuality. One celebrated (to cheers from the Paulites) CPAC’s decision to allow a gay conservative group (GOPride) into the convention. The other reminded his audience (to boos from the Paulites) that “natural rights are rooted in natural law” and that homosexuality - far from being a civil right - is an antisocial aberration. Traditionalists and libertarians oppose the growth of federal machinery for subtly different reasons: traditionalists because it promotes cultural change and libertarians because it inhibits free will. Of course, many traditionalists and libertarians sing from the same song sheet and both tend to imagine that, if left to their own devices, men would be men and women would be women. But the differences in their methodology are clear on matters like abortion and gay marriage. Likewise, libertarians and neocons differ on war, neocons are on the whole partial to the welfare state, and all three are riddled with sectarian divides.

Pundits have missed this problem, although conservatives seem acutely aware of it. At a meeting on activist strategies, Grover Norquist described the movement as a patchwork quilt of campaigns - each disinterested in the other. Their motivations and cultures are different (pro-life and low-tax advocates rarely meet at parties) and this is why it is hard to find unifying agendas or personalities. In fact, the media missed altogether the showcasing of these complex divisions in the 2008 presidential primaries. McCain represented the fiscal conservatives, Romney the East-coast business elites, Huckabee the traditionalists and Southerners, Giuliani the liberals and hawks, Tancredo the nativists, and Paul the libertarians. These groups have common enemies but find it hard to piece together a common theme. Huckabee was attacked for his high spending as governor, Romney for his flip-flopping on abortion, Giuliani for his cross-dressing and Paul for his pacifism. McCain squeezed through the middle, the choice of county chairs and decent, dull folk from the Midwest. Those bowtie wearing, Florida-holidaying, Great Dane-owning bores have lost control of their party for the moment. But they’ll be back.

* * *

There is nothing in the world quite like a Ron Paul speech. One gets the impression that he either can’t hear the cheers or doesn’t believe they are for him. The talk (and it is a talk, not a speech) is delivered in an unrelenting, nasal cadence. It could be reduced to the single note of a car horn - pitched high enough to set dogs barking. While the sound is uniform, the substance is rambling. That afternoon, Paul gave us a lecture on Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy. He did so incisively and without notes. But while most politicians use this gambit to show off their acting skills, Paul probably did it because he left the speech on the back seat of the taxi cab. And so he took us breathlessly from the Lusitania, to the income tax, to the Fed, to Bretton Woods, to Vietnam and right up to the war in Afghanistan. His argument could be delivered by an anarchist: the government has used war as an excuse to expand its powers, crush free speech and reduce us all to consumers of government and corporate services. Right on! Of course, there are subtle, conservative inflections. Spending is out of control and taxes are too high. But there is a universal, youthful message in there that appeals to left and right: leave me the Hell alone. In an age when a “liberal” administration hands out billions of dollars to banks and “patriotic” conservatives send young men to die in a desert, the message has momentum.

Why do we respond so well to a badly delivered speech by a 75-year-old gynecologist with the charisma of a walnut? Why did I shout and scream like a teenager at a pop concert? Because in Dr. Paul’s presence one is in the company of something so unusual that it is historical - a politician who tells The Truth. Of course, truth is subjective and Paul might be wrong, but the way he tells it makes it feel uncensored and raw. With greater polish, the Paul message could be like any other. In its amateur incarnation, it sounds like what it probably is - a cry of rage against the dying of the light. Ron Paul evokes an era of men who went to the West to find that most blessed of things: isolation. He’s a cowboy, and cowboys aren’t given to eloquent lectures and powerpoint presentations. They tell it how it is - or how it should be. Like everyone else in that hall, I feel like I’ve been lied to all my adult life. Ron Paul is the first man I’ve ever believed. He wants to be left alone. I want to be left alone. We all want to be left alone together.

Of course, I’m older than the kids who nearly closed CPAC with a riot when Ron Paul told them to End the Fed. I understand the consolations of the welfare state and the importance of community, the need to protect the weak and to offer hope to the dispossessed. As one of his critics put it to me, “A libertarian is a conservative who doesn’t have a daughter”.

As a tonic to the Paul madness, I sought refuge in a pro-life meeting. Smaller, quieter but no less passionate, I am not ashamed to admit to being deeply moved by the discussion. Paul’s speech was the first time in my life that I have ever stood up in public and screamed. The pro-life meeting was the first time in my life that I have ever cried in front of complete strangers. A softly-spoken preacher told us how his vigils outside of an abortion clinic in Houston had convinced several women to keep their children. One day, one of those mothers introduced him to a baby he had helped save. As he described the feel of its tiny fingers playing with his thumb, I felt my English reserve melting away and tears came to my eyes. The conservative, pro-life impulse is about protecting the weak. Ironically, it requires an active state to deliver that kind of justice. There is a tension, then, between the anarchy of liberty and the compassion of faith. Ron Paul’s speech made me feel angry. This meeting made me feel human. Somehow, conservatives have to find a way of combining those two emotions into a positive programme that celebrates as much as it condemns.

They also have to find a way of turning that programme into a thing of action - something that can speak to ordinary people living from pay check to pay check. At the Catholic caucus we were subject to some rather dry speeches about the anti-big-government bias of the Catechism. I was unconvinced. So too was a pregnant woman who stood up and eloquently explained that because she had a pre-existing condition, she couldn’t get health insurance. So she was moving to Canada. “I am a Catholic,” she said, “and I agree with everything you have to say about abortion and prayer in schools. But I can’t afford to have this baby in this country. Surely the government has to do something about that?” The main speaker castigated her for getting pregnant before getting insured and told her to take her “pre-existing condition” somewhere else. The conservative message right now is that America has the best healthcare in the world. That might be true, but it’s an academic point if you can’t afford it. The solutions to this problem might not be liberal, but Americans need some nonetheless.

The news headlines here say that Ron Paul won the convention straw poll and that the revolution is brewing. The latter point is right, but it might not belong to Paul. While anger is focussed on Obama, conservatives can get away with having no platform and a Neanderthal approach to economics. But when the midterms are over and the GOP actually has to do something, it will discover that the anarchy of popular hate has no favourites. In an odd way, the movement might actually be missing George Bush. The pre-9-11 George Bush that is; someone who mixed social traditionalism with a respect for what good the welfare state can do if managed properly. He called for a humble foreign policy too, something that won Paul’s vote back in 2000.

A little heady after drinking Tequila with some Catholic college students, I cast my vote in the straw poll for Mike Huckabee (William Jennings Bryan wasn’t on the ballot). The governor’s presence was felt, despite his absence. He has the quietness of common decency. “I’m conservative, but I’m not angry about it,” he once said. He also understands that a candidacy of protest has to evolve into a programme for government somewhere down the line. He might calm the waters of the conservative movement and make it do some good. But will we in the vanguard of the Ron Paul revolution sacrifice the raw elation of hearing The Truth for a spell of responsibility? Probably not. And that’s one more reason why Barack Obama will be a two-term president. After seeing the potential on display at CPAC, I write that with regret.

Timothy Stanley is a British historian specialising in the recent history of the Democratic Party and stood as the Labour Party candidate in Sevenoaks at the 2005 General Election. The co-author of The End of Politics: Triangulation, Realignment and the Battle for the Centre Ground, he is currently working on a monograph for Kansas University Press.

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