A duo of young men with cowboy hats have dragooned me into a very serious conversation. I live in Washington, DC; I can go six, seven, eight months without talking to one man rocking the cowboy hat. Since I disembarked at the Conservative Political Action Conference, I have talked to six, and with no exception they've been big fans of Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, the founder of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, and a gadfly candidate for president whose fans clog the halls of the Omni Sheraton like a swarm of aspiring gardeners clambering up a weak fence on the San Diego Sector.
"I actually think Tancredo is wrong about what we should do on the border," one of the college students says.
"I think what we should do is every 500 miles there should be one man with a very, very high-powered sniper rifle. And we'll have signs up—they'll say 'As soon as you pass over this line, you'll be shot.' But this'll be in English. So if they don't speak English they won't be allowed in our country."
I think I see a flaw in this plan. "Wouldn't there be silhouettes of little men holding rifles on the signs, though?"
"It depends, you know." Belatedly realizing that there's a microphone pointed at his mouth, the quasi-cowboy tries to be serious. "But if they wanted to do something about it, they honestly could."
If they wanted to. There've always been tremors of dissatisfaction about George W. Bush at CPAC, going back to his 1999 defeat in the convention's straw poll at the gnomelike hands of Gary Bauer, continuing with the 2004 backlash against his immigration policy. No tremors this year. The ground split, and the conservatives leapt on the opposite side of the canyon. You used to be able to snag Bush buttons or T-shirts or memorabilia at CPAC. The best substitute for that are a few "I Like Condi" buttons, but the "Draft Condoleezza" bandwagon has emptied out since it launched in 2005 with an incredible CPAC presence.
"It's totally crazy," says Crystal Dueker of Think Condi, putting down a sack of Condi gear in the lobby. "The media will say 70 percent of people don't like the president. But they're not talking to the hard-line Republican, support-the-president, strong on national defense voters. Those voters want Condi."
This isn't really true, depending on how you want to define "the media." The conservative media is still serving cocktails inside the Bush bunker, as evidenced by the photo of Crystal Dueker that led Friday's Washington Times. The mainstream media (drive-by media, as some Rush Limbaugh fans referred to it) is fitfully starting to replace its coverage of Bush speeches with A-roll of the 2008 candidates. But for movement conservatives, this presidency's over.
Watch, if you can bear it, Fox News' mirthless satire show The 24 Hour News Hour. Each episode begins with a sketch set in 2009, when Rush Limbaugh is president and Ann Coulter his manlier-than-Cheney vice president. It tickles the ribs of the show's cybernetic studio audience, but it makes no sense. Don't we already have a Republican president and vice president? And don't they already drive liberals insane? We do, but conservatives and the Republican base, having caught up with libertarians, are bent knees, gut-clenching, Pepto-swigging sick of them.
I spent most of the conference quizzing college kids (around two thirds of the attendees are 25 or under) about this. Very few of them stuck up to defend the president on anything but "the war on terror." Only one of them unequivocally would vote for Bush if we found a lost, crinkled page of the Constitution that allowed him to run for a third term. (Another one said he would "if the polls changed and there was some way he could win." Laugh away, liberals!)
And the CPAC straw poll confirmed this. The largest crushing majority in the survey taken by all 1700+ conventioneers wasn't whether the troop surge was a good idea (82 to 17 percent) or whether the United States should "protect its own economic and national security interests" (79 percent) instead of "spreading democracy around the world" (17 percent). It was whether the assembled would support a candidate who considered himself a "Ronald Reagan Republican" or a "George W. Bush Republican." For every conventioneer who pined for a Bush III, twenty-six wanted a new Reagan.
It's easy to write this off as bellyaching. National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez saw the same conference and blogged: "Yeah, sure, they would like a reincarnated Reagan, but they also don't live in a fantasyworld. They want a leader and they wonder which of those before them might just be the one."
But they want a leader to do what, exactly? The Tancredo-boosting, shoot-to-kill conservatives were the minority at CPAC, but any of the conventioneers could name something that "they" weren't doing. Do activists want a new Reagan simply because he was more charismatic than Bush, more quotable, and more popular? Remember, eight years ago, those were the qualities that convinced CPAC dues-payers, among a million or so more conservative activists, that Bush could be a new Ronald Reagan. Also-rans like Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes and Lamar Alexander (now a senator, if you've forgotten) lambasted candidate Bush for reframing his work in Texas as not "conservatism," but "compassionate conservatism." Activists eight years older than the cowboy hat brigade grumbled about Bush's views on immigration, and whether he'd disappoint them in the White House. Here's how his superflack Karen Hughes responded:
It's perplexing that fellow Republicans would attack a popular, conservative governor from a very conservative state whose overwhelming reelection proved conservatives can erase the gender gap and attract record numbers of minority voters while remaining true to conservative principles.
Bush narrowly lost the straw poll after Hughes said that, but talk like that helped him build momentum with conservatives. In early 2000, when his campaign was almost toppled by Sen. John McCain, Bush ramped up the "conservative" part of his pitch, worked his alliances with evangelical activists, and dubbed himself a "reformer with results." That reformer, once in the White House, was malleable enough to sign McCain's campaign finance reform bill—a bill Bush once claimed to oppose.
There's much more to this story, obviously, but the conservatives at CPAC seemed ready to tear up the whole book. Backers of the gadfly candidates like Tancredo, Duncan Hunter, and (so far) Ron Paul weren't numerous or well-organized enough to push their candidates to the uncoverted. Around half of the conventioneers threw their weight behind Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney. The first of those two won them over simply because they could win, and the third simply because 1) he applied plenty of grease to plenty of palms and 2) in a tightly-scripted speech, he was willing to say anything they wanted to hear. "I know how to veto," said the Massachusetts governor who introduced himself to national media by signing onto a Democratic mandatory health insurance bill.
There's time yet for conservatives and libertarians to demand more from their prospective torchbearers. There's even time to shove another one into the race. (To be clear, I'm not talking about Fred Thompson.) First, we have to stop blaming a nebulous "they" for our woes and confront the mistakes that led to the endorsement and election of the current crop of rulers. Too bad that the process didn't start last week.
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.