Once a year, at a Marriott just a few blocks from the National Zoo, in Washington, D.C., the Conservative Political Action Conference convenes its own, somewhat less exotic menagerie of economists, activists, lobbyists, and ministers, plus several hundred college students who fancy themselves tomorrow’s Sarah Palins and Karl Roves. CPAC, as it is nicknamed, is the kind of conference where you can join the NRA, pick up a DVD about the Tenth Amendment, and buy a tiny rubber fetus as a souvenir. If you’d been there this year, you might also have noticed, wandering among the booths, a rather conspicuous delegation of three neatly groomed Asian gentlemen in dark suits. They were visiting from Tokyo, but they weren’t there to sightsee. They had come to learn the secrets of the American conservative movement, in hopes of taking that knowledge home and using it to transform Japan’s drab political landscape.
Early one Saturday in February, as the conference entered its third and final day, the three men sat down in the Marriott’s dimly lit bar to compare notes on what they had seen so far. Behind them, a man dressed in full Founding Fathers drag, complete with wig and tricorne, strolled past; at an adjacent table, two young men with CPAC badges were loudly comparing their hangovers. Speaking through an interpreter, the delegation offered its consensus on the presidential candidates whose speeches they’d taken in at the confab. Rick Santorum was deemed admirable but insufficiently macho; Newt Gingrich appeared to be possessed of “strong character,” an attribute that Jay Aeba, a charismatic 45-year-old with swept-back hair, illustrated with a punching gesture. Mitt Romney was found clever but untrustworthy: “The more he tries to explain, the more doubt I have in my mind,” Aeba said, as his compatriots nodded in solemn agreement.