What do Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Mitch McConnell, and Bernie Sanders have in common? (Besides disliking Ted Cruz, of course.) All were among the top villains invoked—repeatedly—at this week’s annual Conservative Policy Summit, hosted by Heritage Action, the advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation. For seven-plus hours Wednesday (followed by cocktails and dinner schmoozing), die-hard conservatives gathered in Heritage’s stately Capitol Hill digs to hear Republican lawmakers hold forth on topics ranging from “the three-legged stool” of conservatism (defense, economy, and social issues), to the state of the movement, to the pros and cons of killing the filibuster. (At least, that was supposed to be the closing panel until anti-filibuster Representative Bob Goodlatte bailed at the last minute, leaving filibuster defender Senator Mike Lee with a half-hour to fill and no one to debate—his own mini-filibuster of sorts.)
Audience and speakers alike were agitated. President Obama continues to rile up conservatives from the left even as Donald Trump is scaring the crap out of them from his ideologically murky private island of populist demagoguery. No one seemed to know how to feel about Ted Cruz’s win at the Iowa caucuses. And every so often, the awkwardness between House Speaker Paul Ryan (who delivered the opening speech) and his Freedom Caucus antagonists (four of whom composed an afternoon panel) bubbled into view. All told, the summit painted the current state of conservatism as more than a little bit twitchy. As for some of the more specific takeaways:
1. Conservative warriors are gleefully feeling the Bern. No, they are not poised to join Bernie Sanders’s merry band of revolutionaries. They are delighted, however, that Sanders is providing them a wonderful new talking point about how far left the Democratic Party has slouched in recent years. Forget charging Barack Obama with being a closet socialist. The Dems have a serious presidential contender—he almost took Iowa!—proudly embracing the label. For conservatives, this is the most exciting cudgel to fall into their hands since Obama uttered the phrase “cling to guns or religion.” It was particularly striking that Hillary Clinton—typically a favorite punching bag—was barely mentioned over the course of the summit. Bernie, by contrast, was brought up again and again, even in stories that didn’t have anything to do with the presidential race. (Representative David Brat, for instance, felt moved to tell the crowd about how he’d bumped into Bernie at last year’s White House Christmas party.) Freedom Caucus leader Raul Labrador sounded jealous when he noted that GOP leaders are always urging conservatives like himself to “be realistic” and “not engage in fights you can’t win,” even as the Dems “have a socialist telling his party that he’s going to give them free health care, he’s going to give them free education, he’s going to give them all these things.” Grumped Labrador, “No one is telling him, ‘Hey you need to be a little bit more realistic about your goals.’ And he’s most popular person in the Democratic Party right now!”
2. Paul Ryan has officially put Freedom Caucus types on notice: If they go feral and damage the party brand this year like they did last year, he will hold them responsible for destroying the economy if not the entire American Dream. Ryan’s speech was billed as being about “leadership.” The 12-minute address, however, was less about leading than about following—specifically, about how conservatives need to simmer down before they cock things up again and hand the Democrats the White House for another 4 to 8 years. “I believe we are one presidency away from losing control of the situation,” he warned. “The left would love nothing more than for a fragmented conservative movement to stand in a circular firing squad, so the progressives can win by default.” By far the most-cited line of his speech was the Braveheart-inspired plea to “unify the clans.”
3. Ryan is far from the only conservative aware of the movement’s image problem. Lawmaker after lawmaker felt moved to mention that conservatives must shed their reputation as a bunch of bomb-throwing, fratricidal legislative nihilists. “We need to transition this movement so that we’re not known for what we’re against but what we are for,” said Representative Barry Loudermilk. “As conservatives, we have to push solutions,” agreed Senator James Lankford. “We can’t just gripe and shoot at each other.” Most importantly, said Representative Bill Flores, “we have to work together. We have to realize that we have a common enemy, which are the purveyors of a liberal ideology. And we have to make sure we focus outward toward them.”
4. Despite such dire warnings, some members simply cannot help themselves. Thus the Freedom Caucus’s panel on “Driving a Conservative Agenda” got off to a rousing start with Mick Mulvaney’s griping about how conservatives are being pressed to vote for a budget that they don’t like. Labrador followed with his usual warning that Ryan needs to show that he doesn’t just talk a good game. And on it went from there, with Mulvaney at one point ominously noting that, if someone can’t find a way to stop the spending madness, “we’ll wind up passing another CR [continuing resolution] at the end of the year, which will not be good for anybody—most specifically Mr. Ryan.” More than one summit speaker took pains to note that the only “team” he cares about are the voters back home. Clan unity clearly has its limits.
5. Conservatives really, really hate Mitch McConnell. Multiple House members happily talked smack about the gutlessness of Senate leadership. The audience got carried away as well. Early on, following Senator Joni Ernst’s speech on defense, an elderly gent stood up and sweetly inquired: “Can you lend about one-tenth of your courage to Mitch McConnell—or take him out?” It was pretty clear that the questioner was not suggesting that Ernst invite Mitch for dinner and a movie.
6. House conservatives love them some Mike Lee. Seriously. While much about the hoity-toity Senate sets the lower chamber’s teeth on edge, the Utah senator was praised by a half-dozen or so House colleagues, many of whom said they’d been huddling with him on this or that project. With his three Senate besties out on the presidential trail (Cruz, Rubio, and until recently, Paul), Lee has been clocking some quality time with his ideological brethren in the House.
7. Democrats should keep an eye on Ben Sasse. The freshman senator from Nebraska spoke on conservatism’s “economic leg,” and he was good: young, smart, energetic, and likable. Moreover, he knows how to deliver a dose of tough love without actually sounding critical of his own team. In enumerating “four bad ideas” he feels are regularly articulated in political discussions, Sasse took a swing at Trumpism: “A lot of what is happening in the Republican electorate right now is the downstream effects of the tribalism of race, class, and gender-identity politics on the left. Some on the right have decided, if they’re going to have an identity politics, we need one too. But we already have one post-constitutional party. We don’t need another one. The idea that there’s a strong man that can save us isn’t true,” he insisted. “We need a constitutional recovery, not a Republican Barack Obama.” Sasse may be a smidge pointy-headed for the Sarah Palin base. (He has 3 master’s degrees, a Ph.D. in History from Yale, and likes to talk de Tocqueville.) But GOP elites are gonna gobble him up like ice cream.
8. Conservatives’ sales pitch to younger voters still needs some fine-tuning. During the Freedom Caucus Q&A, a young man stood up—prompting moderator Fred Barnes to crack, “You’re the only one under 60 who’s going to ask” a question—to say he would soon be graduating with his master’s degree and wanted the panelists’ thoughts on how to improve job prospects for his generation. Mulvaney responded by asking the guy what he’d studied. “U.S. history,” the young man replied. Solid, patriotic, non-multi-culti degree to make the likes of conservative icon and history professor Newt Gingrich proud, right? Not any more. Representative Mark Meadows promptly teased, “That’s the problem!” Everybody laughed. Mulvaney then launched into a lecture about how, back in his day, banks wouldn’t give a guy a student loan unless the applicant offered assurances that he would be able to pay it back some day. But now that the federal government just hands over the money, nobody bothers worrying about whether or not they’re pursuing a worthless degree. “This is not to denigrate or demean folks who want to study philosophy or U.S. history or anything,” Mulvaney assured the young scholar. “But you need to sort of consider job prospects when making those decisions.” It’s all well and good to go study “sub-Saharan African basket weaving,” quipped Mulvaney, but afterward “don’t come looking to us and say, ‘Where are the jobs for sub-Saharan basket-weavers?’” In a word: Wow.
9. The filibuster will endure. Nowhere are you likely to find greater hostility to the filibuster than among hard-charging, revolution-minded conservatives. (Do not ask a Freedom Caucuser about this topic unless you want your ears singed.) But while House Republicans are itching to blow it up, on the assumption that this will make it easier to get their policies through the upper chamber, few senators from either party (including the handful attending the summit) seem eager to relinquish this juicy bit of power. And since senators are the only ones with a say in the filibuster, don’t expect it to go anywhere any time soon, despite all the huffing and puffing.
10. For those who have wondered about the roots of conservatism’s antipathy toward “experts,” this summit was clarifying. More than one speaker made derisive references to “the rule of experts”—by which he meant that far too many regulations are set, not by elected officials, but by the wonks who make up the “fourth branch” of government (or “fifth branch,” depending on who was doing the counting): the federal bureaucracy. As policy specialists inside agencies, wonks do not face the voters every two, four, or six years. This makes them not directly accountable to We the People and so, by definition, dangerous. The particular regulation vexing conservatives at this gathering was the EPA’s newish Waters of the U.S. rule. But the problem, as they see it, runs well beyond any one agency, encompassing the entire concept of an expertise insulated from the whims of politics.
By day’s end, as the crowd drifted out of the auditorium in search of the bar, it was tough to tell whether attendees seemed energized, terrified, or ticked off. Most likely a bit of all three.