Hm. George Will attended a different CPAC than I attended. But his glass-half-full column is worth checking out.
Now, consider today's three leading candidates, starting with McCain, the mere mention of whose name elicited disapproving noises at CPAC. This column holds the Olympic record for sustained dismay about McCain's incorrigible itch to regulate political speech ("campaign finance reform"). But it is not incongruous that he holds Barry Goldwater's Senate seat.
This is cant, isn't it? An anti-McCain scoundrel could point out that the senator whose big ideas have been "send more troops to Iraq" and "shut up, all of you" holds Earnest McFarland's Senate seat. Anyway, Goldwater held both of Arizona's Senate seats. And he had a belief in small government that, as Matt Welch can explain for you, McCain does not really share. McCain believes in a hodgepodge of ideas with the common thread of government whacking people who piss him off. This manifests as some good work against earmarking and a high ACU rating (which Will points out), but it raises doubts about what kind of a president he'd be. (At the CAGW press conference, McCain's first answer to a question on what he'd do about pork in the White House was "invite Porker [the pig mascot] into the Oval Office." It didn't sound like he had thought out how a president would fight reckless spending and earmarking.)
At CPAC, Romney gave the most polished speech, touching all the conservative movement's erogenous zones, pointedly denouncing the "McCain-Kennedy" immigration bill and promising to seek repeal of the McCain-Feingold law regulating campaign speech. Romney, however, is criticized by many conservatives for what they consider multiple conversions of convenience -- on abortion, stem cell research, gay rights, gun control. But if Romney is now locked into positions that these conservatives like, why do they care so much about whether political calculation or moral epiphany moved him there?
The reason: We don't assume he's "locked" into them. As I pointed out after CPAC, candidate George W. Bush had a way of "locking in" to various conservative ideas when he figured that one or another was electorally powerful. It's giving to much credit to Romney to assume his conversions are genuine or (as Will doesn't, but some CPACers did) compare his evolution to Reagan's. This is probably asking too much of a modern candidate, but Reagan spent his post-gubernatorial, pre-presidential career repeatedly debating and hashing out his philosophy, explaining why he rejected the massive growth of the federal government from the Great Society onward into the 1970s. Romney has attacked a few unpopular Bush policies and... what else?
Will has praise for Rudy, whom he introduced at CPAC:
He favors school choice, he opposes bilingual education that confines students to linguistic ghettos and he ended the "open admissions" policy that degraded City University, once an effective instrument of upward mobility. The suggestion that Sept. 11 required city tax increases triggered from Giuliani four adjectives: "dumb, stupid, idiotic and moronic."
Of all the '08 frontrunners, Rudy can marshall the most proof of his economic conservatism. At some point, though, he has to talk about the role of the executive and the national security state. Not just reenact 9/11 - talk about the powers of the president and the federal govenment.