After several days of finding most of the official proceedings fairly grotesque, I get a small glimmer of why libertarians have often felt more at home in the Republican Party this afternoon. But not easily.
I take the F train into Manhattan from Park Slope, where I'm staying, and head for a Club for Growth forum on "Future Stars" of the GOP. It's an old-boys-club type of place, and I'm wearing jeans, a "Free Martha" T-shirt, and a generous helping of stubble. (I'm not identifying the venue because, for obscure reasons, they ask journalists coming in to agree not to name it in their pieces, even though the event was already published on Congressional Quarterly's events list… which is how I knew where to find it.)
The portly guard looks me up and down as though I've just stumbled in reeking of Mad Dog 20/20, wearing nothing but a plastic bag and asked whether I might defecate on the Persian carpet. He holds out a beefy hand peremptorily: "Jacket and tie only." The event announcement made no mention of this. "Even journalists?" "Everybody." There's an odd gendered double standard here, as a female blogger I know comes out wearing slacks and a pretty casual blouse, but that's par for the course. Another youngish guy comes out and returns a blazer and tie. "Well, can I borrow a jacket and tie like that guy just did?" Alas, no, I'm wearing jeans, and am urged to make my way expeditiously out of the building.
I am, of course, fully and duly respectful of any private establishment's choices about dress requirements, but the guard is being significantly more of a prick about it than necessary, so motivated as much by spite as by any burning need to see the event, I scan the stores just outside. I'm not a big fan of GAP, but I sure as hell can't afford the Gucci, so I duck into the former and grab a black corduroy jacket, a green checked shirt, and a pair of black slacks, ring them up, then duck into the fitting room and stuff my old clothes into the backpack.
"Ahem… now may I borrow a tie?" Through some combination of Buddhist tolerance and my innate aversion to being punched in the face, I manage to resist appending "jackass?"
Between arriving late to begin with and this rigmarole, I've taken a pass on nascent "stars" Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), Rep. David Dreier (R-California), Gov. Bill Owens (R-Colorado), and Gov. Mark Sandford (R-S.C.). As I enter, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Indiana) is launching into a speech structured, basically, as an extended naval metaphor. Despite this grating conceit, it's actually quite heartening: At long last, a breach in the wall of cheery Scientology-ish unity. The GOP, Pence intones as I enter, is "veering off ever so subtly into the dangerous waters of big government Republicanism, and we must turn the ship back!"
Thunderous applause. Like the Grinch witnessing the Whos of Whoville in song, my heart grows three sizes for the party… not that I expect this to change, but at least these guys will say things like this. Pence calls himself a "Frozen Man": after losing congressional bids in '88 and '90, he finally won election in 2000. "Frozen before the [Republican] revolution, thawed out ten years later," as he puts it, he's Rip van Winkled to discover that successive H.R. 1s—top Republican priorities—for successive Congresses are No Child Left Behind Act ("the largest expansion of the Department of Education since Jimmy Carter created it") and the Medicare prescription drug benefit ("the largest entitlement expansion since 1965"). And referring to David Brooks' NYT Magazine cover story on the end of government-shrinking as a Republican ideal, Pence declared: "To his 'new way,' I say 'no way!'"
Good stuff indeed. But I'm worried that this is a battle the Brooks side is more likely to win. It's been a long forum, granted, but by the time Pence steps down and Pat Toomey steps up to make a few remarks, there are at most a few dozen folks left in the room, and writer Deroy Murdock has to shush a chattering mob in back. At the "W Stands for Women" event, Lynne Cheney noted that some opponents of the president were spreading the scurrilous rumor that he'd allowed Deparment of Education funding to be cut. She reminds them that Bush has overseen a 49 percent increase in federal education spending, "and don't let anyone tell you he hasn't!" This, remember, is a mostly internal event meant to inspire hardcore Republicans. That's who's "steering the ship" now.
Pence concludes by suggesting that "as soon as we re-elect George W. Bush, this debate"—a debate about the future of the Republican party, a debate over whether it will be the the party of limited government or just another porcine nanny with a frumpier demeanor—"will begin." Maybe the time to start having that debate is right now.