12 Hours at CPAC, the 'Mardi Gras of the Right'

Santorum was the star attraction at the confab, but he had a lot of competition from the sideshow at the annual festival of conservative thinking.


Just when things were beginning to drag a bit at yesterday's Conservative Political Action Conference -- dubbed "the Mardi Gras of the Right" by the American Spectator -- Occupy D.C. showed up, and the future of American conservatism, several thousand strong, wandered out onto the front lawn of the Marriott Wardman Park to sneak a cigarette and catch a bit of the action. Protesters pounded the pavement in front of a jumbo inflatable "fat cat," complete with fangs and three-piece suit, which had its paws around the neck of an inflatable Joe American. Teamsters, U.A.W. members, and Occupiers surged up the driveway. The police closed in. Taunts sailed back and forth over their heads.

Rebecca DiFede, a CPAC participant with a silver business card case and pink tongue stud, watched from the sidelines. "I just saw Ann Coulter speak," she said. "She opened with, 'Hello one-percenters. Welcome to Occupy the Marriott.'"

As we strolled back inside, DiFede said that she understood the economic frustrations at the heart of Occupy. She graduated from American University this spring: "It's astonishing to see how many of my classmates are out of jobs. Unemployment for our age demographic is something in the upper forty percent." (In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment among 20-24 year olds is 14.2 percent, and 59.9 percent are employed.)

I asked DiFede whether she sees any shared blood between Occupiers and Tea Partiers. "The Tea Party movement is usually made up of well-educated, regular people who take time from their jobs or families to go and try to make something better," she said. "These people -- not to put people down, but -- when I went there, they were vagrants and drug addicts. People without jobs who said they'd been out of work for months. They'd just been sitting in McPherson Square. How is that helping you get a job? No one's going to come down and interview you in your tent."

* * *

CPAC, like most political conventions, has the feel of an indoor state fair, with fewer fried cheese curds, more speechifying, and plenty of chances to score free knickknacks: beer koozies (courtesy of the American Conservative Union), tiny rubber fetuses (Human Life International), and sunglasses (Google). There are more than 5,000 attendees at the confab, which wraps up Saturday evening, along with hundreds of reporters from the "lamestream" media. When the crowd gets on its feet in the main ballroom -- which it does, often -- the place just howls.

When I arrived at 8:15 a.m. Friday to grab my credentials, many CPACers were still sleeping off the previous night's festivities. The hotel's exhibition hall was deserted, save for Edward Newland, who was dutifully manning the Newt 2012 booth. He'd been on his feet most of the last 24 hours, but he cheerfully walked me through a chart comparing Gingrich to the competition. Result: Newt wins.

Newland is a political science grad student and campaign volunteer in northern Virginia -- a state where Gingrich isn't even on the primary ballot, owing to his failure to collect enough signatures. This is a sore point. "I don't want to have to vote for Mitt Romney or Ron Paul," he said, referring to the two candidates who are on the ballot. "That's no choice at all. That's like, which one of my legs do I want to chop off?"

Paul won't be appearing at this year's CPAC, to the surprise (and dismay) of many. He typically makes a strong showing here, and for two years running, he's won the convention's straw poll. Word is, Newland confided, that Paul's campaign usually scores cheap tickets, stacks the crowd with young boots, and runs away with the vote. This year, no dice.

Instead, Rick Santorum seems to have the largest army of dewy-eyed ephebes. A few hours after he appeared onstage with his beaming wife and kids, Santorum held a meet-and-greet in the Wilson Room. The line to get in the door made a complete loop around the mezzanine balcony, and then wrapped in on itself. If he had stayed for the whole thing, it would have taken Santorum until Saturday morning to shake all these folks' hands. Even so, they waited. One volunteer said she took a red-eye from L.A. just to be here and pitch in.

In line, Loren Spivack, free market warrior, sold copies of his "Cat in the Hat" parody, The New Democrat, which features Obama as the sly, toothy cat, wearing a Soviet-style cap emblazoned with hammer and sickle. (Glenn Beck plays the anxious fish.) The rhymes are pretty catchy, actually. The book ends with America racing full speed ahead toward government rationing, death panels, &c.

Half an hour later, the line to see Santorum had barely budged.

* * *

At lunch, I plopped down in the hotel lobby next to the Shadrix family, up from Raleigh, N.C., as they tucked into Chipotle burritos. They capture the CPAC demographic pretty well -- white, well-educated, strong Christian values, happy to chat with a perfect stranger. Tom wore a red sweater vest, Wendy a red argyle cardigan, and their eldest, Shawn, a red paisley button-down. Shawn and his father are CPAC veterans, and none too broken up about Ron Paul's no-show. "They're pretty disruptive," said Tom of Paul's supporters. "I don't know how he's doing that as an older gentleman, how he's mesmerizing this group." He also wasn't too keen on Romney breaking "Ronald Reagan's eleventh commandment: 'Don't blast your fellow Republicans.'" Santorum speaks to their traditional values, added Wendy.

Like nearly everyone I chatted with at CPAC, the Shadrixes wanted to know which way The Atlantic leans: left or right? Oddly, this question always cropped up at the end of the interview, as if those I'd spoken with were simply curious how their quotes would be spun in print. Was I an ally -- or a snarky hack from New York? The Atlantic, going back to 1857, to Emerson and Longfellow, has been "the organ of no party or clique," I told them. Inevitably, the conversation would turn to how polarized the media has become, and how democracy suffers as a result, the consensus being: Everyone knows it. No one knows how to fix it. It's getting worse.

Wendy Shadrix stopped me as I stood up to leave. She and Tom chose to home-school Shawn and his sister, Mikayla, and she knew how home-schooling evangelical Christians are depicted in the "liberal" media. She hoped I won't caricature her, she said. So here are the facts: Shawn and Mikayla have read Shakespeare and The Voyage of the Beagle under their mom's tutelage. They have not read Ayn Rand. They are bright, charming, look-you-in-the-eye-when-making-conversation kind of kids. They have good teeth. If I'd stuck around another five minutes, Shawn probably would have offered me the rest of his burrito. As it was, I was late to see Newt.

* * *

Gingrich, Santorum, and Romney were all on the stump Friday, and their remarks were fairly boilerplate. Santorum jabbed at the frontrunners, saying the GOP needed a candidate it could get fired-up about. Romney declared himself a "severely conservative Republican governor" who "fought hard to prevent Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage." Gingrich punted, with a lackluster oration. "Newt is an enthusiastic and committed golfer," his wife, Callista, said by way of introduction. "He gets in and out of more sand traps than anyone I've ever seen." The audience in the cavernous hotel ballroom greeted this with...crickets. The press pen above the ballroom stifled a giggle. Even the stony-faced Times reporter cracked a smile.

The most inflammatory one-liners -- evoking the biggest roars of approval -- came from speakers on the B-list panels. There was plenty of talk of "left-wing social engineering" and "government poverty plantations." Pundit Jonah Goldberg compared Romney on the stump to "Spock reading a love letter." Cal Thomas said of left-leaning news anchor Rachel Maddow: "I think that she is the best argument in favor of her parents using contraception. I would be all for that. And all the rest of the crowd at MSNBC, for that matter." At this, Twitter went bonkers.

In truth, though, the second day of CPAC didn't feel much like a Tea Party rally. The CPAC hoi polloi milled about in sober suits and tippy heels. The only truly surreal moment of the afternoon came when William Temple, dressed as a British redcoat (rum flask, Union Jack) stopped to pose with Mr. Crony Capitalism (cane, top hat) and Big Government Gary (fat suit, fake bills). Temple is a first-generation Tea Partier who supported Michele Bachmann, and later, Herman Cain; he can't stomach any alternatives. "The Tea Party is fractured beyond belief," he said. "They're at the whims of the GOP." In protest, he's advocating for the return of King George III. Better than either Mitt or Newt, he said.

Meanwhile, Big Government Gary invited me to happy hour at a bar in Adams Morgan.

* * *

As the day wound down, I paid a visit to the NRA's virtual shooting gallery, where Janis Chester, armed with a plastic pump-action shotgun, was absolutely mopping up the competition. When she stepped away from the firing line, Chester, a psychiatrist from Delaware, disclosed that she recently got her conceal-and-carry permit. She has strikingly clear eyes and wears a diamond-studded Star of David around her neck. Like me, she was a CPAC virgin. "It's like the most inspiring pep rally," she said.

Her boyfriend, Robert Pyles, avuncular with his snowy hair and soft laugh, joined the conversation, and they began to chat about being "born again" Republicans. "We were both pretty hardcore Democrats up until Obama ran," said Pyles. "That was a wake up call," added Chester. "My gut, when I saw him, I knew he was evil."

Pyles served in the Navy, but, until 2008, hadn't voted Republican in three decades. He supported Clinton and detested Bush. In fact, the couple met at Al Gore's nominating convention in 2000. Then came Obama. "I found him empty, vapid," said Pyles. "'Hope and change,' what's that? I thought he had no substance."

Slowly, Chester, who grew up "a middle class, New York Jew," found that she couldn't tolerate NPR on the drive home anymore. "I started zooming around the dial. I discovered talk radio." Glenn Beck unearthed some latent libertarianism in her blood. "Obama made me feel so..." She paused, searching for the right word. "I instantly knew that he hated America. Repulsive."

In the Tea Party, the couple found a new -- if underground -- home. "The circles we move in, you don't dare say anything far right," Chester said. "I didn't realize it was verboten to say I was for McCain. It was like I'd said that I was for killing puppies." Not long ago, they attended Glen Beck's Restoring Courage rally in Jerusalem. Seeing the Holy Land, she said, was nothing less than profound.

Like many Tea Partiers, Chester and Pyles were sad to see Bachmann and Cain drop out of the race. Would they tolerate Romney? "I'd support a ketchup bottle before I support Obama," said Pyles.

* * *

Hours later, I passed "Thomas Paine" and "Thomas Jefferson," both in tri-corner hats, doublets, and breeches, as they strolled toward the Ronald Reagan VIP reception, looking to wet their beaks. Fittingly, the bar was serving Sam Adams.

"There's only one guy in America who has run on the Constitution," said Paine. "Ron Paul." But, added Jefferson, in true colonial fighting spirit, "Once the primary's over and we have a nominee, we have a responsibility to come out and work for that nominee and beat the other guy. To stay home and not do it is a kick in the teeth."

As they headed toward the libations, Paine leaned in close. "Watch those neo-cons over there at The Atlantic. I get nervous at that one -- what's his name? Goldberg."

Me, I headed over to Adams Morgan, where Big Government Gary -- now sans fat suit -- was hosting Politics Liberty on the Rocks, a monthly meeting of D.C.'s young conservatives. Suffice it to say that the bar in question, Madam's Organ, had rarely seen so many clean-shaven young men in suits in one night. They were chummy and sharp. An ex-infantryman talked about about life after Baghdad. Someone bought me a Bud, and I got to try out my new CPAC beer koozie. With my credentials tucked in my back pocket, I was just one of the gang, whether I liked it or not.

Image credit: Reuters