The Other Meltdown: Conservatives

Conservatives gathered last week at CPAC to rediscover their ideological heart, but the result was more identity crisis than true direction, write Eric Alterman and Danielle Ivory.

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Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, at the White House in January, took center stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week. (AP/Ron Edmonds)
Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, at the White House in January, took center stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week. (AP/Ron Edmonds)

Let’s admit it. Liberals had a fun week watching conservatives demand the head of RNC Chair Michael Steele for daring to differ with the conservative movement’s newly crowned Obi-Wan Kenobi, Rush Limbaugh. 

Ann Coulter told Glenn Beck that she was disappointed in Steele for calling Limbaugh “ugly and incendiary.” Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) went on "Larry King Live" and proclaimed Limbaugh “a great leader for conservatives.” Bill O’ Reilly said Steele wouldn’t “want to get into a fight with Rush Limbaugh—that would be suicide.” Steele hastily apologized for his comments, claiming a Descartian mind-body disconnect: “I went back at that tape and I realized words that I said weren’t what I was thinking,” Steele told Politico. “It was one of those things where I thinking I was saying one thing, and it came out differently.”

And now Rush Limbaugh is demanding a one-on-one debate with the president of the United States. We say, “Bring it on.” Rush can start by explaining some of this.

But there is a deeper specter haunting conservatism, one involving its entire identity. It surfaced while Coulter and Beck discussed the Conservative Political Action Conference, otherwise known as CPAC.

Coulter: Now they [conservatives in Congress] can vote their principles. Some of them didn’t vote their principles—

Beck: (head in hand): What principles do they have? Name one.

Coulter: Small government, freedom—

Beck: Really? Which one? Was that George Bush who gave us smaller government?

A shiver of self-doubt appeared to shoot through Coulter. You know you’re in trouble when Glenn Beck is your go-to guy for sensible self-criticism. But Beck is not alone in his attempt to sever the connection between the Bush administration and the conservative movement for which it professed to speak.

In his unintentionally hilarious response to the State of the Union Address, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal made a similar statement: “In recent years… our party got away from its principles.” And this year’s CPAC extravaganza was all about reuniting conservatives with their long-lost ideology. By contrast, Jon Stewart gently reminded us that when President George W. Bush arrived at CPAC last year, he was greeted with cheers of “Four more years! Four more years!” Some highlights from this year:

Chairman of the American Conservative Union and lead organizer of CPAC, David Kleene: "We didn’t object to things that were going off the track…. If you lay down with the politicians you entrusted with your vision and if you lay down when they are off the track, then it’s your fault."

Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN): “Republicans didn’t just lose a few elections, we lost our way.”

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI): “The Republican party disregarded its principles, roots; it sacrificed and it failed to operate a vision relevant to most Americans.”

Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL): [House Republicans] have found out the way to regain the majority is to go back to our old ways.”

Former Gov. Huckabee (R-AK) (referencing the Bush government’s disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina): “We’re no longer Reagan’s shining city on a hill; we are the ruined city by the sea.”

Two CPAC speeches in particular went viral. Thirteen-year-old Jonathan Krohn garnered more than 100,000 views on YouTube, explaining that the Republican Party was merely the “shell” to conservatism’s “filling” of core principles. He told Huffington Post reporter Sam Stein that the GOP “started losing it [elections] because the American people saw the American party wasn’t really based on conservatism,” using Bush-era policies on immigration and TARP as prime examples. (The kid needs to spend some more time in history class—at least long enough to reach 2006).

Of course, El Rushbo, whose hour-long speech reaped hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube alone—despite his cleavage-heavy get-up reminiscent of a (very) white Barry White—did not apologize for Bush, but he did harken back to the era of Reagan. Limbaugh celebrated the conservative movement’s bread and butter, its ideas: “Conservatism is a universal set of core principles,” he said. “You don’t check principles at the door…. Nothing stale about freedom. There’s nothing stale about liberty. There’s nothing stale about fighting for it. Nothing stale whatsoever.”

We’ve come a long way since 1947 when Friedrich Hayek and 38 others gathered at the foot of Mont Pélerin in Switzerland to discuss free-market values and political change. And we’ve come a long way since 1960, when the Young Americans for Freedom assembled at William F. Buckley, Jr.’s estate in Sharon, Connecticut and drafted the famous Sharon Statement, articulating their principles as young conservatives. They didn’t co-opt words like freedom (as if other Americans simply detest freedom). Instead, they defined a conservative vision.

But coming out of Limbaugh’s mouth (coming out of Coulter’s mouth, too), these principles have become self-parodies. In fact, Limbaugh highly discouraged grappling with conservative beliefs and, in a rather weird passage, thinking ahead:

For those of you in the drive-by media watching, I have not needed a teleprompter for anything I’ve said. [Applause] And nor do any of us need a teleprompter, because our beliefs are not the result of calculations and contrivances. Our beliefs are not the result of a deranged psychology. Our beliefs are our core. Our beliefs are our hearts. We don’t have to make notes about what we believe. We don’t have to write down, "oh do I believe it, do I believe that." We can tell people what we believe off the top of our heads, and we can do it with passion and we can do it with clarity, and we can do it persuasively.

He continued: “Conservatism is what it is and it is forever. It’s not something you can bend and shape and flake and form.” Limbaugh’s conviction is a testament to the conservative movement’s talent for translating its ideas into a clear, if un-nuanced, message. And it reflects unparalleled recognition that defining and expressing underlying political principles is important, not just for winning elections, but for creating valuable and long-lasting policy.

Limbaugh tells a nice story, but it sounds like one made up by someone who’s been on drugs for the past eight years. Conservatives didn’t just misplace those principles after the Reagan era, as so many at CPAC tried to suggest. They misplaced them the moment they came to power. Last year, during Pulitzer season, Greg Anrig at The Century Foundation posted a thoughtful blog about this:

Almost all of this year’s Pulitzer winners in journalism owe a debt of gratitude to the conservative movement for creating and implementing the ideas that produced the calamities unveiled in their exceptional reporting. I would add, though, that the media in general have largely failed to draw the connections linking the right-wing’s belief system and policies to outcomes like children harmed by unsafe toys and cribs, the importation of poisonous pharmaceuticals from China, the transgressions attributable to private security contractors in Iraq, abuses of power based on the sham "unitary executive" concept, negligent management of a government-run hospital, and the subprime fiasco. Even in most of those award-winning articles themselves, relatively little effort was made to underscore the reality that the conservative movement’s hostility toward government was the root cause of those failures of government.

Perhaps this is why Gov. Jindal irked so many people with his enthusiasm for limited government in a speech that criticized the Bush government’s catastrophically unfit response to Hurricane Katrina. And, either tragically or hysterically—depending on one’s point of view—he picked disaster readiness as the one example of allegedly wasteful government spending. And perhaps this is why some of the more thoughtful denizens of the right-wing blogosphere are as worried about the future of their movement as liberals are gleeful. Here’s a sample. (We read right-wing blogs so you don’t have to…).

Reihan Salam, co-author of Grand New Party, writes at Forbes:

Limbaugh is enraged by the likes of David Brooks and David Frum and Jim Manzi and Ramesh Ponnuru, conservatives who consort with the liberal enemy. Though all of these writers and thinkers disagree amongst themselves about a great deal, they share a basic belief that the party needs to do more than just promise tax cuts we can’t afford. And they recognize that a healthy political movement is always open to new ideas, and to questioning old convictions.

Ross Douthat, Salam’s co-author, asks:

What if the keynote speaker at a liberal version of CPAC insisted that the “only blueprint liberals need to win elections is the one that Lyndon Johnson used to rout Barry Goldwater?” He writes at The Atlantic:

The Right has a messaging problem, yes—but it also has a message problem. It could be America’s natural governing party, sure—but as long as its economic agenda looks like Jim DeMint’s alternative stimulus, full stop, nothing else to see here, it won’t be. Republicans are in deep trouble because the economic meltdown was piled on top of George W. Bush’s personal unpopularity—but they would be in some kind of trouble no matter what, because the right-wing message on domestic policy hasn’t been resonating with "the people in the middle culturally and economically," who [Patrick] Ruffini rightly identifies as the backbone of any plausible conservative majority, for going on years and years now. The current crisis hasn’t created the problem; it’s taken an existing problem and throw [sic.] it into sharp relief.

David Paul Kuhn, author of The Neglected Voter, writes at RealClearPolitics:

After Democrats trounced Republicans in two national elections, CPAC’s panels deal with "new challenges in the culture war" or "whether President Obama’s tax policy will ‘kill entrepreneurship’?" There are also panels for a Hispanic coalition and one for young Republicans on "rebuilding the movement." However, there are no panels on why the movement has withered, what new ideas are required to regain power or why the GOP is repeatedly losing first-time voters. Anxiety over the party’s future is conspicuously absent.

Rick Moran, lead blogger at Right Wing Nut House, criticized this inflexible take on current conservative principles at Pajamas Media:

But conservatism has gone off the rails, becoming in some respects a parody of itself. A philosophy that is all about honoring and conserving tradition while allowing for change that buttresses and supports important aspects of the past, has been hijacked by ideologues who brook no deviation from a dogma that limits rather than expands human freedom.

Patrick Ruffini drives it home at The Next Right:

If the average apolitical American walked into CPAC or any movement conservative gathering would they feel like they learned something new or that we presented a vision compelling to them in their daily lives?

In the meantime, let’s all join the die hards and offer up a thank-you to the almighty for Rush Limbaugh. Liberal scientists, working for decades in a federally funded research lab, could never have invented a better counterpoint at a time of national crisis.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, a Nation columnist, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking. He blogs, occasionally, at

Danielle Ivory is a reporter and producer for the American News Project. She lives in Washington, DC.

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Eric Alterman

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