This year's Conservative Political Action Conference is impressively diverse: The groups that have set up booths include FreedomWorks, Freedom's Defense Fund, Freedom Alliance, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, Let Freedom Ring, FreedomFest, Young Americans for Freedom, the Campaign for Liberty, and my favorite, Youth for Western Civilization. As for the actual attendees, about half appear to be college students, while another one-quarter look like those guys who hang around university libraries into late adulthood. The remainder are D.C. regulars—politicians, media figures, commentators, nonprofit leaders, and their respective entourages.
The questions hovering over CPAC this year are two: 1) What happened? 2) What now? The answers, too, fall into two categories: We didn't compromise enough, or we compromised too much.
For this crowd, the latter narrative is gospel. The problem is not that John McCain failed to win the center. It's that he strayed too far from the conservative principles of low taxes, strong defense, and family values. "We can't plot a new strategy unless we realize that the past path didn't work," said Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin in his keynote address.
To these minds, the 2008 election was not a rejection of conservative policies, because no candidate represented them. Democrats had the youngest, most charismatic candidate in decades, with hundreds of millions to spend against a party whose president was mired in two wars and a plunging economy, a party that fielded an uninspiring, geriatric candidate—and still Democrats won only 52 percent of the vote! Barack Obama likes to remind Republicans in Congress that he won the election. But Republicans at CPAC remind him that it wasn't by much.
And now, Ryan says, Obama is already running the country into the ground. "Americans were asking for conservative policies," Ryan said. "But the liberals in Congress gave us a $700 billion budget buster." As he says this, the man standing next to me groans loudly. I watch as he produces an orange bottle of prescription pills, fumbles a finger around inside, and pops one into his mouth. Obama is literally driving Republicans to medicate.
As Ryan speaks, it becomes clear why he got the keynote spot: He's the Republicans' idea guy. Sarah Palin might be the cheerleader. Huckabee might be the folksy man of God. Romney might be the efficiency expert. Ryan name-checks Hayek and Ayn Rand. He uses the phrase tipping point three times in one speech. He also describes a five-point plan to Republican dominance: Stabilize our currency, reform the tax code (even Geithner couldn't figure it out!), prevent a "federal health care monopoly," cap the federal budget, and dial back regulation. It occurs to me that Obama would agree with him on three out of five.
If Ryan is the bright young future of conservatism, the next speaker, John Bolton, is his grizzled uncle with PTSD. "President Obama is the most radical president ever elected," he begins before proceeding, essay-style, to support that thesis statement. For starters, Obama never uses the phrase war on terror. He doesn't understand the CIA, as proven by his pledge to keep open temporary intelligence bases. ("Here's a little tip: All CIA bases are temporary.") Bolton then recalls the time during the campaign when Obama said Iran was just a "tiny" threat. "Is the loss of one American city picked at random—Chicago—is that a 'tiny' threat?" He delivers this line like Kevin Nealon's Subliminal Man. This brings the house down.
But Bolton is just getting started. "How many of you would like to spend more money on foreign aid?" he asks. A smattering of chuckles. "How many of you want to spend more money on missile defense?" Uproarious applause. "Yeeeeah!!!" screams someone nearby. Later, he works in a nice riff on Iran's nuclear program, quipping that it's "not motivated by an abstract interest in astrophysics." If you believe Bolton, Obama won't be voted out of office so much as bombed out.
Later in the day, Mike Huckabee offers his own diagnosis of the party's ills: They didn't listen to him. During the campaign, he says, "I was often excoriated by writers because I dared say, which I did, that there was a Wall Street-to-Washington axis of power that was out of control." He adds: "I got laughed at for saying it then. It seems prophetic now." Likewise, Republicans were too afraid to be social conservatives: "We didn't lose because we want to keep babies from ending up in wastebaskets."
But the most withering critic of Republicans might be one of their most prominent figures: Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher. "I'm pissed off at the Republicans just as much as the Democrats," he said in an interview. "They need to stop talking and start doing something. I don't love Obama, but you gotta give it to him—the Democrats are making things happen."
Wurzelbacher is easily the most-loved person here. People line up to see him wherever he goes. Fox News producers rise from their lunch tables to intercept him. Fans tell him secrets in hushed voices. "You'd think he was Julia Roberts," says his handler. "George Clooney," he corrects.
Wurzelbacher says he's no fan of the stimulus—"No one wants to dig a 6-foot hole"—but is equally dismissive of Republican governors who say they plan to reject some of the recovery funds. "That's posturing. Take it all, or don't take any of it. Don't pick it apart and say I'll take a little or whatever."
But he saved his harshest words for the man who made him: John McCain. "He doesn't care about what's best for America," Wurzelbacher said. "He only cares about what's best for John McCain."
According to Wurzelbacher, he and McCain have "not a damn thing in common." "I respect his service to our country," he said, but he doesn't agree with his policy positions. He doesn't regret campaigning for McCain, but he does resent the campaign's attempts to keep him on message. "When I said a vote for Obama would be death for Israel, they freaked out. Twenty cell phones started ringing. I said, 'Guys, if you want me here, you can't me telling me what to say.' " He added, "I feel dirtier now than I ever did as a plumber."
I asked him whether he supports anyone for 2012. The answer was an emphatic no. "There's been no leadership," he said. "I believe Sarah Palin honestly wants to serve her country." But he hasn't made up his mind.
As for Wurzelbacher's future, he's still riding out his campaign fame. He has a gig reporting for Pajamas Media, and this week he's been touring Washington think tanks. Number of plumbing jobs he's done since the campaign: two.
What he really wants to do, though, is teach. Middle-school history, in particular. "I love history, all kinds of history, world history," he says. Somehow, he wanders to the subject of slavery. "Don't get me wrong, slavery was a terrible, horrible thing. But you can't whine and cry about it these days. I mean, Jews were slaves, but they're not asking for compensation from Egypt. People want to play the victim. …" He trails off. "I should stop."