Reeling conservatives assess damage

Some maintain GOP played role in election losses

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / March 1, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Deeply wounded after big losses in the last two elections, and horrified at what they see as a veer toward socialism, conservatives are coming to the same conclusion as their Democratic foes: It's the Republicans' fault.

Sure, President Obama is moving toward nationalizing the banks, conservatives grumbled at their annual conference here this weekend. But former President Bush started it, they noted testily, with his $700 billion Wall Street bailout package.

And yes, congressional Democratic leaders should be held accountable for pork-barrel spending, they added, but it was Republicans who ran up the deficit and debt with big-government programs in the past eight years, according to activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The yearly meeting - meant to give conservatives a chance to exchange ideas and hear from potential candidates - had the air of a group therapy session this time, as thousands of conference-goers assessed their diminished power in Washington.

"Sadly, our former president propelled America to socialism - all the way to third base," with Obama set to bring it to home, said conservative columnist Deroy Murdock. "Our side emerged with neither principle nor power."

And John Bolton, former US ambassador to the United Nations, was equally non-nostalgic in speaking about his former boss: "We are better off, in some sense, not having the Bush administration to defend," the former Bush administration official said. "Too many people connected the Bush administration to conservatism, and as we all know, that didn't happen."

Even former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich - while winning laughs for deriding Democrats in power - slammed the recently-retired president.

"We didn't get real change. We got big spending under Bush, now we have big spending under Obama," said Gingrich, author of the "Contract With America" that underlay the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. "The great irony . . . is that we have a Bush-Obama big spending program that is bipartisan in nature," Gingrich told conference attendees.

Nor were there kind words for the man who hoped to replace Bush.

"John McCain was so much a part of the problem," said conservative columnist Michelle Malkin, complaining that McCain did not adhere to conservative principles, especially in the area of energy exploration. McCain irritated conservatives with his opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

And Karl Rove, the man Bush called a "boy genius," and the architect of the GOP plan for a permanent majority? "Why is 'the architect' giving free advice" on cable TV when conservatives are struggling out of the "rubble" of the destroyed buildings built with Rove's "blueprints," Murdock said.

"Would you rather take flying advice from Captain Sully or the pilot of the Hindenburg?" Murdock added to resounding applause at a conference workshop, referring to the captain whose plane landed in the Hudson River in a crash that claimed no casualties.

Conservatives bemoaned their situation as the worst of possible worlds: They don't like what the Democrats are doing, but they're not so happy with a lot of the Republicans, either. And with the new president enjoying wildly high approval ratings, Obama-bashing doesn't give them much traction with the American public.

While speakers sought to rally the base, attendees were still deflated over last year's losses. One of the most popular events at the conference was a job fair for newly-unemployed conservatives. "Unofficial economic indicator," a young conference-goer said wryly as he waited in a long line with other job-seekers.

Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, lamented the diminished power of conservatives on Capitol Hill. "In case you haven't noticed, it's becoming increasing lonely in the Republican caucus," Cornyn remarked at the conference. "If we don't turn this around, then soon we'll be able to rent out the Republican cloakroom, and just meet on the elevator."

Malkin, addressing a media workshop, dismissed 2008 GOP presidential contender Mike Huckabee, slamming him for suggesting during the 2008 primary that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was more protective of Wall Street than Main Street.

Huckabee, meanwhile, criticized McCain for sitting down with Obama during the campaign season to negotiate the $700 billion bank bailout bill. "That moment was not our best moment," said Huckabee, who spoke after Malkin.

The annual conference has, in the past, been a launching point for Republican presidential hopefuls. As he did in 2007, Romney yesterday won the conference's straw poll. He gained 20 percent of the vote, followed by Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana with 14 percent and Texas Representative Ron Paul and Alaska's governor, Sarah Palin, tied at 13 percent each.

Romney withdrew from the 2008 presidential race at the conference last year, two days after being beaten by Senator John McCain in the Super Tuesday primaries.

Only a few potential 2012 nominees - Huckabee, Romney, and Paul - showed up to speak. And while all got enthusiastic responses from the audience, none appeared to dominate among conference-goers still unhappy with the performance of the party.

Republicans "have turned it into a big-government Republican party. Clearly, that's not what the American people want," said Trevor Ford, 24, blaming GOP spending for the party's losses at the ballot box. "If you're not doing your job well for that many years, it's bound to happen."

Jindal is still smarting from poor reviews of his televised response to Obama's speech to Congress last week.

Palin, like Jindal, did not show up at the conference, although some participants had their photos taken next to a poster of the GOP vice presidential nominee.

While Palin attracted many social conservatives, "she's tainted goods now," because of negative publicity during and after the election, said Bill Zeiser, 27. Zeiser said the party needed to return to a basic message of lower taxes and small government.

'We didn't get real change. We got big spending under Bush, now we have big spending under Obama,' Newt Gingrich said.

Looking back

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