NEW ORLEANS—This year's Republican Leadership Conference reminds me of that story about prisoners telling jokes. They have all become so familiar with the jokes that they assign them numbers. A shout of "Nine!" can make everyone in the cellblock roar with laughter. But when a new guy tries it by yelling out "Five!" no one laughs. "You told it wrong," his bunkmate tells him. At this weekend's conference, all a speaker had to do was mention a hot-button issue and the crowd would react. The greatest hits: Europeans, ATM machines, global warming advocates, Nancy Pelosi, White House czars, the Federal Reserve, Brazilian oil, and Obama apologizing for America. When Michele Bachmann announced that she was the author of the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act, she got a standing ovation.
The Republican Party is intense, fed up and worried. But until the primary process sorts itself out, activists sitting in the meat-locker temperatures of the New Orleans Hilton are frustrated in limbo: Desperate to take up the cause against President Obama, but determined not to pick someone who yells "2012" but tells it so wrong no one votes for the Republican.
Two different approaches for success in next year's election emerged during the first two days of the conference, highlighting the central fault line in Republican politics between pragmatism and principle. This is not a new story—in politics or the Republican Party—but some of the players are new, and the stakes are high for a country whose voters are worried about the future. "In my 42 years in presidential campaigns, this is the first time I've heard this statement," said Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi. "I'm afraid my children and grandchildren are not going to inherit the country I inherited."
Barbour and other Republicans could be accused of hyperbole. The out-of-power party always tries to make the situation seem as dire as possible. But the fear he articulates animates both parties. 62 percent of the country thinks America is on the wrong track according to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. An astounding 78 percent of the public is dissatisfied with the direction of the country, according to the Gallup poll. It's just that the two parties put the blame in different places: China, corporations, unions, Obama.
Addressing this underlying worry will be the key task of the president elected in 2012. In the GOP there is agreement on the villain, but not quite on the method of deposing him. Barbour made the pragmatic case you'd expect from a former chairman of the national party. "Don't get hung up on purity," he said. "In politics, purity is a loser." He reminded the crowd of Ronald Reagan's saying that someone who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is your friend and ally—"he's not a 20 percent traitor." The message was clear: Don't let a few disagreements prevent you from picking a presidential nominee who can beat Obama.
Barbour was well received. So was his speech, which was full of the witticisms and the slow-rolling jokes that are his trademark. Barbour gives voters jokes they can take home in their pocket, a key skill for any successful politician. Anyone who ran their business like the federal government "could write a book," Barbour said. "And it would start with Chapter 11." Unlike other speakers at the conference, who tended to grind the humor in with the heel of their shoe, Barbour's is merely needling: "Obama's policy of driving up the price of energy seems to be the only policy that works."
As if to bring the opposing viewpoint in the GOP field into stark contrast, Barbour was followed by Rep. Tom McClintock of California, who argued the party would lose in 2012 if it compromised on principles. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina spoke an hour later and sounded the same theme, reminding voters of what he said last fall: "I'd rather have 30 Republicans that believe in the principles of freedom than 60 Republicans who don't believe in anything at all." Some in the crowd stood to applaud. DeMint noted that Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Rand Paul of Kentucky had all been elected on this theory.
Barbour would agree with DeMint in principle, but might argue that where the line falls between pragmatism and principle has yet to be determined. Rep. Michele Bachmann thinks she knows. A crowd favorite, she was surfing off of the positive reviews of her New Hampshire debate performance where one poll shows she got a bump. In an era of no compromise, Bachmann presents herself as a fighter in the arena. For certain candidates it might be a liability to be a Washington politician. It isn't a liability when your message is that you are a constant irritant to business as usual.
Much of the first two days of the conference were spent railing at Obama's policies. Health care reform and financial regulatory reform were the two main targets, with a big dose of irritation that Obama has not allowed sufficient exploration of domestic sources of energy. Even amid this constant stream of hyperbole, however, Bachmann stood out. "You survived Katrina and you survived President Obama's oil-drilling moratorium," she said. "There's nothing you can't survive."
Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana warned the audience late Friday to avoid too much bile. Recalling the "shrill, absurd and negative rhetoric" of those who hated George Bush, he said, "We must not mimic their shallow approach." Later, in an interview with Politico's Jonathan Martin, Jindal was more pointed: "I think It's hypocritical to say, 'Well, it's not patriotic when they do that to President Bush but it's OK for our side to [do] it to President Obama."
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