If CPAC seemed dull this year - did Ann Coulter say nothing? Could it have been that slow? - I think it's because a lot of the political news seemed abit foreordained, even down to the "stunning" but hardly surprising result that Ron Paul is popular with the further reaches of the right. Most of the speakers - Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney... surely Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich and George Will - were more about where CPAC has been then where the conservative movement is going. Those who did give some sense of that - Scott Brown and Marco Rubio for instance - tended to be afterthoughts; or in some cases, just didn't show up at all (Sarah Palin, notably, but also the much liked Mitch Daniels of Indiana).
More to the point, though, CPAC underscored a number of problems conservatives have taking advantage of the things that are supposed to be working, so thoroughly, in their favor: for all the talk of "Tea Party anger", CPAC was a good indication of how much of that anger has, predictably, cooled; and without the rage, it was kind of obvious that the right still has a leadership problem.
Consider that, only a few years ago, a pretty different set of characters ran the show: Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin... all seemed kind of tamped down and marginalized. Limbaugh's barnstormer of last year was replaced, quite similarly, by Glenn Beck (who Limbaugh, pretty clearly, can't stand). And while the right has constants like Newt Gingrich to repeatedly trot out... Gingrich, especially, embodies that special political skill that keeps such folks afloat: embracing this year's trendy cause while quietly disavowing whatever it is that's no longer getting applause.
Democrats get tagged, often, as the party with the short attention span: embracing every trendy cause, always trotting out some "Kennedy-esque" new face who reminds us of JFK. Being the party that produced (and destroyed) John Edwards, that can be understandable. But if Republicans have a crisis of leadership, it may be because conservatives have become some of the most fickle lovers of new faces: as fast as a new handsome dude (usually white, but occasionally tan) enters the room, their love of last year's model goes out the window.
Consider one obvious example from CPAC: Tim Pawlenty, who was hailed, for years, as the great hope for the GOP out of the midwest. Pawlenty was example A of how Republicans grew their farm team outside the DC swamp, until they were ready to take center stage. Well, Pawlenty has yet to do that and the chances of it happening look increasingly remote, not helped by his "let's take a nine iron to government spending" remarks on the stage this week. But why start or stop there? Consider:
- Arnold Schwarzenegger, hailed as the great telegenic hope of the California GOP, hastening the rejection of Gray Davis and showing that only Republicans could save the state... until he didn't, and worse, turned out to be the kind of social moderate and generally consensus building moderate (indeed Eurpopean) centrist the right likes to call RINO? His national ambitions ruined, indeed with no future career in elective politics ever likely, The Governator is now a right wing enemy and cause for mass disdain.
- Mitt Romney. To be fair, selling Romney to the southern, evangelical religious right was always going to be a stretch, given their doctrinal objections to Mormonism; but still, telegenic and absurdly handsome (even this week), Romney was supposed to be the proof that Republicans could get elected in hard core Democratic areas, and could offer constructive, pro-business solutions that counter traditional Democratic ideas. The latter look a lot less promising now that Romney's background in high finance is more liability than strength, and the former means less now that they have Scott Brown... who just entered the room.
- Dan Quayle. Remember, when Bush picked Quayle in 1992 he was supposed to be a dynamic young embodiment of the "new conservatism" and all it could be. Boy did that turn out badly.
- George W. Bush. Son of a President, private sector business experience, Governor of Texas... it was all so beautiful, right? Right?
- Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist. Over and over, Republicans embrace their winners, especially in the big states like Florida, as the next standard bearers for the party and the hope of the next wave. Jeb was on the short list for President... until his brother got their first and, well... we don't talk about that anymore, do we? Then all eyes turned to Charlie Crist, even more popular, handsomer... until he played nice with Barack Obama and seemed a little, well, light in the loafers to be serious material. Bring on Marco Rubio.
...and all of these men are really just for starters: How about Jack Kemp? Remember that? Or how about when John Kasich was hot hot hot? Remember how, just a couple of years ago, we were convinced Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan were flavor of the month? That was practically yesterday and yet, even now... they have almost zero likelihood of moving up the line.
In that sense the rush to crown Scott Brown and Marco Rubio - not even elected to statewide office yet, ever - isn't surprising, or even brave. It's another step in a long series of anointings - going back, I'd argue to when Ronald Reagan left politics - by a right wing desperate to find future success in the latest hot new thing. Even as Scott Brown fervor cools - even he managed a verbal gaffe in just introducing Romney, never mind crossing party lines on one of his earliest Senate votes - and Rubio fever heats up, the sense of desperation is palpable. Stop us before we have to anoint another brilliant newcomer all over again!
By contrast, in thinking it over, it's remarkable to realize that Democrats do not, in fact, play this "new JFK" game as much as one might think. How did Scott Brown win? Why, by running to follow Ted Kennedy's 46 year run in the Senate, beating Martha Coakley, a Democratic veteran who'd already won statewide office and was expected to easily continue. And who'd she beat in the primary? Michael Capuano, a multiple term Congressman regarded, widely, as a fast rising star in Democratic circles.
In the GOP... he wouldn't just be Senator, he'd be writing a book.
Over and over, Democrats have shown, if anything, a remarkable resilience in sticking by the old, familiar names rather than dare to switch to something new. Walter Mondale, Mike Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry... we've shown our stubbornness numerous times on the way to losing the Presidency. And even when we win: Bill Clinton kicked around for years, gathering supporters and adherents before we reluctantly thought, maybe, he wasn't too green to run in 92. And still, you can make the argument, we may have made a mistake on that one by going too soon.
Yes, Barack Obama does seem to suggest an embrace of the hot new thing... except that his lack of experience and his status as hot thing of the moment were actual negatives to many, not selling points. What sold him was, in fact, that he was not new: he'd been published, known well in Illinois and attained a national stature via the Democratic National Convention and his status as the only black Senator. And we may yet, on the left, decide, regretfully, that we did rush to crown hm too soon.
Republicans have yet to admit anything of the sort about George W. Bush. Hell, they still get defensive when you bring up Dan Quayle. Yet their hope springs eternal - anointing, and discarding the attractive newcomer after only months, maybe a year of celebration. Sarah Palin? Let's face it, that shelf life is already fast expiring, and she's unlikely to be a serious option in 2012, however some may want it to be (even on the left). No, by 2012 what will be hard to tamp down is the energy to move Scott Brown up the line; except maybe by looking at Marco Rubio.
Into this mess, I think the problem with "Republicans harnessing Tea Party energy" becomes clearer: the last thing Republicans need, really, is another breath of fresh air that says "out with the old and in with the new." You want out with the old... why not look at marginalizing Dick Cheney, whose usefulness and ability to attract anyone but the already diehard is surely a dead issue. What the GOP really needs is consistency, the voice of actual experience, and people who can win repeated elections while sticking to a set of core principles and beliefs. That's not what's happening, nor is it what the rank and file seem to crave. Until they do, the right is probably stuck on this merry go round and could stay there for years. Indeed, the chase for the approval and entertainment of college age Republicans is a sure sign: and the children shall rule.
Perversely, if someone needs more Tea Party energy... it's Democrats, still looking askance at the idea of things like, well, primaries where established voices have to stand up to the challenge of a fresh face and new ideas. Or to rethink assumptions about only running local minority candidates in minority communities (be it gay, Asian, black or Latin), and really shake up traditions and expectations. Take for example Evan Bayh: the real scandal of his retirement was not some frew over "moderation" but the fact that he abandoned his run only one day before the filing deadline for the primary in Indiana. Which means that, yet again, party leaders will have absolute say in picking his replacement (longtime, established Congressman Brad Ellsworth).
Look, I'm all for the appeal of cute fresh new dudes... God love em; I sure do. But growing up and getting serious means realizing the strength of a longer term commitment, while not getting stuck in a rut. Step away from the cute dude, conservatives. Commit to some of the folks you already have, and watch them grow into the kind of leaders you actually need. And leave the cute newcomers to us on the left. We'll know what to do with them. Trust me.