March 3, 2009

GOP goes soul searching

Ever wonder what lingers in the hearts of Republicans as they retool for a return to power?
Last Updated: 1st March 2009, 3:58am

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- There I was, in the bowels of the Omni Shoreham, trolling for the soul of the Republican Party, when I got an offer I couldn't refuse.

"You've gotta get out on an aircraft carrier to really see it," said Bud Barnes, a retired American Airlines pilot and Vietnam vet from Little Rock.

Having never been on an aircraft carrier, I really didn't want to discourage the invitation, but I had to ask.

"What does the aircraft carrier have to do with rebuilding the Republican brand?"

"You'll see what I'm talking about. Really."

He'd been talking about the state of conservatism in America in the post-Bush, mid-Obama honeymoon wilderness, tracing a continuum from the French Revolution and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Rush Limbaugh and I guess my increasing bewilderment was making him desperate.

By the end of day one of "Where did we go wrong?" post-mortems and Obama obsessing at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Barnes' aircraft carrier field trip was looking pretty sensible.

The annual CPAC conference was expected to draw a record 9,000 attendees this year, all wanting to hear something that would not only overtake Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's falsetto response to the nation last Tuesday night as the sine qua non for conservative electoral rebirth but maybe even sum it all up in one, great defining idea.

"We will not yield!" intoned Indiana Congressman Mike Pence, who, to great effect in the room, cast the road to victory as a moral crusade for "freedom, free markets and traditional moral values." The problem with, "We will not yield," is that, although it may rally the Christian right, it's still really about the other guys you're not yielding to.

Former Arkansas governor and former and seemingly current Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, whose daughter Sarah's intro stole the show, railed against the Bush record and against John McCain for voting for the $700-billion September Wall Street bailout before taking a stab at an idea that also offered the bonus of closure: "We didn't lose because we wanted to keep unborn babies from ending up in wastebaskets. We lost because we were too closely associated with people who'd spend $1,400 on a wastebasket."

OK, so it's no, "Morning in America."

Illinois Congressman Aaron Schock, 27, is the youngest member of the House of Representatives who recently earned rightie points for resisting the stimulus stumping charms of the new president and voting against the recovery package anyway. As a The Key to Victory? Listen to Conservatives, panelist, Schock issued a call to action based on clear-cut principles, invoked the boldness of Ronald Reagan and advised a clear articulation of "what we stand for" without really filling in the blanks. "When Republican candidates show a little heart, we trump anything the Democrats can offer," Schock said, adding smiling helps.

Other strategies from the podium included deploying the politics of personal destruction against Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd and New Jersey Sen. John Corzine as a recapturing-the-Senate plot and replicating the Democrats' 50-state strategy by selling the GOP message on traditionally Democratic turf (they may have to re-tool that wastebasket talking point first). Those are really about the other guys, too.

Meanwhile, in the hallways and on nearby street corners, the foot soldiers were making a lot of sense, especially some of the young ones.

Kurt Sorensen, 22, a Republican student leader from St. John's University in Minnesota, said, "We're going to have to be more inclusive. We need to offer a choice to the voter."

Asked for one central idea that should define the Republican agenda for the next four years, Sorensen said, "We won't spend money we don't have."

Not surprisingly on the same day Obama unveiled his $3.5-trillion budget, that idea was pounded home in most of the speeches. But after eight years of ballooning Bush deficits, it may be a hard message for the GOP to own and its mileage depends on the failure of the economic recovery.

Michael Murphy, 62, an Atlanta political consultant, echoed what was developing into a theme all its own and that, for now, may be the only one with any traction.

"Right now, Americans are hungry for change and the fulfillment of the Obama promise. But people will find out there's no such thing as a free lunch."

You never know. But that's also all about the other guy.