Republicans Are Still Asking Where They Went Wrong

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Jan. 28 2013 1:01 PM

Conservative Angst

Republicans descend on the National Review’s post-election summit to ask: “Why?”

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Freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), here during the Republican National Convention in August, attended this past weekend's National Review conference.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A well-stocked open bar cures all angst. The reception room at the National Review Institute’s post-election summit has four of ’em, loaded high with rum, whiskey, vodka, and triple sec, and O’Doul’s for those who want to fake it. When there’s an evening lull in the Omni Shoreham’s main ballroom, there’s a party waiting in the mini-ballroom across the beige hallway. Early on Friday evening hundreds of conservatives pack the room, stepping in and out of line depending on whether they’re thirsty or whether they’d rather talk to one of the available icons—Mark Steyn! Jonah Goldberg! Rich Lowry!

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

I get stuck between Steyn, a ring of his fans, and a bar, where I meet an Orlando dermatologist named Darrin. He’d volunteered for Mitt Romney’s campaign, “making calls from my office” when he wasn’t working or raising his kids, and he wasn’t surprised when Romney lost, because he doesn’t put any graft past Barack Obama. “I’m worried about a dictatorship,” he says—really, we have been talking for maybe three minutes before he lays this on me. “I mean, it happened in history. History repeats. Why couldn’t it? How about all the Muslim Brotherhood czars? He’s got like eight different guys in the administration who are members of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

When I start to sound skeptical, Darrin pulls out his iPhone and forwards me an infographic. It’s titled “Muslim Brotherhood Infiltrates Obama Administration,” and it shows six Muslims who work in the administration and “enjoy strong influence.” Another way of putting it: Six mid- and low-level staffers in the administration have, in the past, appeared on panels staged by frightening-sounding organizations. But the evidence worries Darrin. “If I have to go to a freakin’ island to save my kids,” he says. “I’ll do it. I’ll leave the country.”

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Any hack can roll into a political conference, find the most outré attendees, and pretend that the room was packed with nothing but. National Review is a standard target of this sort of journalism. At least three times, liberals have embedded on the magazine’s biennial post-election cruises, and come out with feature-length contributions to the Those Crazy Conservatives genre. In most respects, Darrin was like the other NRI summit ticket-holders I talked to—a middle-aged guy with a successful business, worried about his lost country, worry deepened by a steady diet of conservative media.

But toward the end of the conference on Sunday, I sit in on a panel titled “What is a conservative foreign policy?” And in it, National Review’s Andrew McCarthy asks why Huma Abedin had been allowed, for so long, to work alongside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, holding a security clearance.

“We have people throughout our government who have connections to the Muslim Brotherhood,” says McCarthy. “Not, like, tenuous connections. Strong connections. We have a situation where, in our intelligence community, they have made a policy of purging information in the training materials of our law enforcement agents, our intelligence agents, and our military people, if the information casts Islam in a bad light—which, back in the 1990s, when I was a prosecutor, we used to call evidence.”

That gets applause, something that was scarce and hard-earned at the weekend conference. National Review has only held two other post-election summits—they save ’em for real debacles. In 1993, William F. Buckley gathered 1,000 conservatives in the nearby Mayflower Hotel, to vent and strategize about the threat of Bill Clinton. In 2007, after Democrats took back Congress, NRI met at the J.W. Marriott up the street to hear from potential 2008 saviors.

“Mark [Steyn] gave an incredible speech at that conference,” recalls Jonah Goldberg, joining Steyn onstage Saturday night for a “Night Owl” banter session—cash bar this time. “He closed his speech with one of the funniest lines that’s ever been said on the public stage. Ladies and gentlemen, the next president of the United States, Mitt Romney!

Laughter and groans. Conservative donors and thinkers respect Mitt Romney more than they did the defeated George H.W. Bush or the ousted, forgotten Speaker Dennis Hastert. In 1993, then-NR editor in chief John O’Sullivan told conservatives that they were in the midpoint of the “Bush-Clinton” era—that Bush had betrayed the Reagan revolution, and could not be considered part of it. In 2013, Romney is seen as a fundamentally decent man who simply did not know how to “message” conservatives’ beliefs or explain what Obama was doing wrong. “He spoke conservatism,” says Charles Krauthammer in a Friday night Q&A, “as a second language.” Speak it as a first language, and you can win.

Every elected Republican at the conference attempts to prove that. On Friday, NR’s Jay Nordlinger asks freshman Rep. Tom Cotton to swat away some of the liberals’ myths. Why did Republicans lose Hispanics? “We’re quasi-racist, or maybe racist without the quasi,” says Nordlinger. “It’s supposed to be killing us.” Cotton doesn’t know how to fix it. “I think Romney only got 27 percent [of Hispanic votes], but John McCain four years ago got 31 percent when he’d been the sponsor of an immigration bill,” he says. “It’s presumptuous and condescending to think that Hispanics, as a class, are only focused on immigration.” Will conservatives have to accept the “momentum” for gay marriage? “It’s only this last year that people in any state have decided to accept gay marriage,” says Cotton. “In California, four years ago, [they] voted for traditional marriage.”

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