When the leading lights of the movement gathered for the weekend to regroup from 2012, they had their work cut out for them. Not that they took it up.
The bleak tenor of this year's National Review Institute Summit was clear from the panels, which bore names like, "What is Wrong with the Right?" "Does the Constitution Have a Future?" "The Way Out of the Fiscal Mess?" and "Do Demographics Doom the Right?" The conference seemed poised to focus on how to reinvent the conservative moment and halt the impending apocalypse.
But anyone expecting a chastened group ready for harsh truths and new realities in the way of the right's political catastrophe in 2012 would have been disappointed. There was remarkably little discussion of what should be done to bring in fresh blood and political ideas to the so-called New Right coalition during the summit in Washington. Aside from a few skirmishes over immigration reform and John Fund's proposal for a politically charged, youth-friendly web-video series, it was more of the same: dire predictions that America was going the way of Europe, lionization of Ronald Reagan, and a stubborn refusal to moderate socially conservative stances.
Rather than coming up with new ideas, conservatives seemed as confident as ever that their ideas appeal to a majority of Americans, proclaiming a seemingly moral victory over the left and patting each other on the back. "The man who deserved a Nobel Prize more than [any winners] in the past century combined ... is Ronald Reagan," insisted newly elected Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. The Gipper's secretary of education, Bill Bennett, assured attendees that their team hadn't ossified since then, though. "The team we have in the field now for the conservative movement is greater than the team we had in the field in the days of Reagan," he said.
Such talk is typical fare at political gatherings, of course. But in this case, it reflects a denial that 2012 was any kind of ideological rebuke. Pollster Kellyanne Conway argued, for example, that a victory shouldn't have been too expected by conservatives, since no incumbent who didn't face a primary challenger has lost the presidency since Herbert Hoover. Cruz countered one of Mitt Romney's most infamous statements of the campaign, saying, "Republicans are and should be the party of the 47 percent." And following a campaign in which Romney and his allies lambasted President Obama for his handling of Israel and the president still won 70 percent of the Jewish vote, Cleta Mitchell, a powerful lobbyist, NRA board member, and American Conservative Union board member, returned to a question that has baffled conservative thinkers for years: "Why do Jews vote for Democrats who are against Israel?"
"Republicans are and should be the party of the 47 percent," said Senator Ted Cruz.
Social conservatism was conspicuous at the summit as a topic that organizers downplayed even as they seemingly staying supportive of hardline views. The last year marked the first time that more Americans support gay marriage nationally than oppose it, while two states voting to decriminalize marijuana in the last election. Meanwhile, 63 percent of Americans currently oppose overturning Roe v. Wade. If the nation isn't becoming socially liberal per se, it certainly seems to be moving toward a more permissive, libertarian posture.
And the gap on gay marriage and abortion is even more pronounced among younger voters. A group of younger conservatives -- not all, or even necessarily a majority, but definitely a growing portion -- are silent members of this demographic shift, and seemed disappointed by the omission of open debate on these issues at the summit. Meanwhile, many speakers and attendees seemed to be in denial of how badly issues poll nationally, especially with this younger demographic. "Once they get married and have babies they'll become more socially conservative," Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition assured me.