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Scenes from the Conservative Bunker

The National Review summit's message: Obama is out to "annihilate" the GOP

Subterranean windowless “ballrooms” are the bane of contemporary political confabs, but the setting for the National Review Institute’s summit this past weekend, in the lower basement level of the Omni Shoreham in Washington, seemed fitting. After all, the rhetoric coming from Republicans has been increasingly bunkerish: President Barack Obama, the line goes, is not just out to destroy the American free enterprise system—that was the line for the first term. Now he’s out to destroy the Republican Party itself—or rather, to render it gradually extinct, a la the Whig fadeout of the mid–19th century. So we had House Speaker John Boehner last week telling the Ripon Society (apparently, it still exists) that Obama wanted to “annihilate” the GOP. And the National Review summit kicked into gear with Paul Ryan on Saturday morning repeating the threat, in somewhat milder terms: Obama, he declared, “needs to delegitimize the Republican Party—and House Republicans, in particular. He’ll try to divide us with phony emergencies and bogus deals. He’ll try to get us to fight with each other—to question each other’s motives—so we don’t challenge him.” The message got through to the several hundred disconsolate attendees. One, an accountant from New Jersey by the name of Tony (“not Soprano”) told me that he saw Obama’s goal being to “make [Republicans] irrelevant. That’s how he’s going to get rid of [them].” And how would he encourage that irrelevance? “By lying. Like he’s been doing for four years.”

But it’s easy to come to post-defeat events like the National Review summit looking for flashes of irrational resentment or paranoia. More interesting is to try to find glimmers of self-scrutiny, and the summit, which was held close on the heels of a Republican National Committee confab in Charlotte, did not disappoint. To their credit, some of the conservative luminaries in attendance were candid and searching to an extent I had not seen whatsoever on the campaign trail last year. Here are a few such glimpses that stood out to me:

1. George W. Bush exists! One of the most surreal things about the 2012 campaign was the utter absence of the fellow who had been in the White House for the eight years prior to Obama. He was a Person Not To Be Mentioned during the Republican primary debates and his only appearance at the GOP convention in Tampa was via a rather odd Bush family video. Yet here at the Omni Shoreham was the beginning of a reckoning with him and his legacy for the party. Joe Scarborough quoted William F. Buckley’s observation that the war in Iraq “wasn’t a conservative venture” and declared that Bush “completely muddied the brand when it came to our core issue: that we are the party of small government.” Ross Douthat, the New York Times columnist and longtime advocate for Republican policies geared to help working-class voters, countered that Bush, with his purported compassionate conservatism and spending on things like the Medicare drug benefit, had at least tried to respond to the problems foremost in voters’ minds, such as rising health care and education quality, the sort of issues that Bill Clinton had “thumping Republicans up and down Washington for six years." “The Republican Party will never get back from the wilderness if it just says we have to keep our brand pure and make sure Americans know we’re the party of small party,” Douthat said. “Voters are pretty confident right now in the Paul Ryan era that the Republican Party is the party of small government, and they didn’t vote for the Republican Party in the last election cycle, even with Paul Ryan on the ticket… Ultimately, Barack Obama won the election because people thought he cared about people like us.” That was a sentiment that conservatives have trouble inspiring, he said, and one that “George W. Bush, for all his many flaws, was better at dealing with than any other leader of the party since.”

2. The financial collapse was kind of a big deal. Another striking absence on the campaign trail, particularly during the GOP primaries, was any substantive grappling with the 2008 financial meltdown, beyond vague condemnations of the “bailouts” that followed it. But here was Bill Kristol reminding the summit audience that the “worst moment, economically, in middle-class Americans’ lives” in recent years was the 2007-2008 collapse, “and Barack Obama wasn’t president then and people were better off by 2012, or seemed to be.” The collapse, he said, “remains a searing experience and Republicans don’t have a clear explanation about it.” He even went so far as to mock the favored conservative talking point for the collapse: that the housing bubble was created by the Community Reinvestment Act passed years earlier to encourage lending to low-income homebuyers.

3. Governing might involve, you know, government regulation. It was Commentary’s John Pohoretz who broke the news that when a party spends several decades declaring all government regulation off limits, it makes it sort of hard for elected representatives to pass regulations and laws to their liking. It’s one thing to decry Dodd-Frank or the Affordable Care Act, but if you aren’t able to propose rules and regs to replace them, you’re not going to be taken seriously. “The problem with three decades of movement thinking is that it ends up creating dead ends,” he said. 

4. Maybe low taxes for the super-rich are not the best foundation for a party platform. Scarborough praised Kristol for having, in a recent column, raised this question (in Scarborough’s words): “Why should we keep putting our political necks on the lines for rich guys who make billions?” Yuval Levin, of National Affairs, added a moment later that the barrier to economic growth is “not high marginal tax rates,” as it once was, but rather the “profound inefficiency of our economy.” 

5. Threatening a U.S. credit default in 2011 was not perhaps the most responsible thing for Republicans to do. Following on his call for allowing Republican elected officials to actually govern, Podhoretz declared, “Politicians can’t come to Washington to do nothing. That’s an oxymoron.” But following the big GOP wave of 2010, that often seemed to be the goal, he said. With the debt ceiling, in particular, there was a widespread notion that all Republicans had to do was stand pat and let the threat of default near, that this would somehow be “a really exciting moment,” causing a crisis that would “lead to, you know, fun change.” “This,” Podhoretz said drily, “was not a rational response to a particular political moment.”

6. Maybe empirical measures matter after all. This one was a doozy: Scarborough recalled just how wrong Republicans, and many mainstream pundits, had been about the outcome of the election. He, too, he said, fell for the conventional wisdom in the final weeks, that Mitt Romney was riding a wave of momentum, with his big campaign crowds as ultimate proof. His source for this judgment? “[Uber-pundit] Mark Halperin called me and said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it!’”

7. Living without health insurance is a bummer, and saying you’re going to repeal Obamacare doesn’t do much for voters in that situation. It was Douthat who broke this news. “A lot of Americans don’t have health care. To those people, the Republican message on health care has nothing to say. For people without health insurance, Mitt Romney had nothing to say.”

8. “You didn’t build that” was a poorly-chosen fixation. Ted Cruz, the highly-touted new senator from Texas, made this observation, which I’ve heard from a few other conservative corners since the election. Republicans spent much of the summer, and their convention, obsessing over Obama’s garbled riff about the role that government plays in business success. It was a fish in the barrel, but, as Cruz noted, it probably didn’t resonate with the vast majority of voters who haven’t “built something.” After all, most of us are not business owners—we work for them. 

9. The Obama administration’s move to require contraception coverage in most insurance plans was perhaps not a suicidal overreach after all. When the administration came out with the new birth control coverage rules last year, many conservatives—and not a few liberal Catholics—predicted that the rules would cost Obama big with Catholic voters, maybe enough to swing the election. Several speakers at the summit noted grudgingly that this had not occurred. Instead, they cast the contraception move as a devious ploy to win Obama the votes of women—especially young and/or single ones. Michael Barone referred darkly to the contraception controversy having helped Obama win “the Lena Dunham generation, about which the less said, the better.”

10. The voter-fraud bogeyman was a distraction. After the Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, Republicans spent a lot of time warning about the fraudulent voters that had surely driven up Democratic totals, and crafting voter ID laws to guard against this threat. But at the summit, there were hints of acknowledgment that these efforts not only didn’t work, but distracted Republicans from turning out their own voters. Heather Higgins, of the group Independent Women’s Voice, noted ruefully that in fact, it was the voter-registration guru hired by Republicans last year who became ensnared in allegations of widespread fraud. “We’re the ones always talking about voter fraud. Well, we did it,” she said. And Ralph Reed, the prince of the religious right, admitted that the Obama campaign had shown up Republicans at the game that he considers himself an expert in, voter outreach and turnout. Unlike the Romney campaign, he said, the Obama campaign did not count as true voter contacts mere robocalls or direct mail pieces. One quarter of Obama voters in swing states had campaign visits to their door just prior to the election, he noted, while only 14 percent of Romney voters did. Republicans needed to stop paying mercenaries to do their outreach for them and start inspiring regular people to go door to door in their own neighborhoods, as Obama’s rank and file did. “We’re returning to the get out the vote technology of the 19th century,” he said. 

Now, it was not all truth-telling at the Omni Shoreham. Party reformation is going to take more than one winter weekend holed up in the cellar. The elected officials who came by to speak were, on the whole, far less bracing and self-critical than the pundits and experts on hand. Scott Walker spent most of his lunchtime speech basking in nostalgia over his win in the Wisconsin recall election last year, making nary a mention of the fact that Wisconsin voters had months later favored not only Obama but the quite liberal Tammy Baldwin for the Senate. Ken Cuccinelli, the arch-conservative Virginia attorney general running for governor, spent much of his time talking about the need for liberal-minded law schools to introduce “natural law” to the curriculum. Cruz, meanwhile, tossed out some pretty worn lines for a guy who’s supposed to be the party’s great fresh hope, including a riff about Obama wanting to turn the U.S. into socialist-style Europe, where “the rich do just fine” but “what you don’t see are any rich people who used to be poor.” In fact, as Rick Santorum dared to talk about during his primary bid, the U.S. has now fallen behind much of Europe on measures of social mobility. The gist of Cruz’s pitch was a “darkest before the dawn” argument—that the horror of Barack Obama would give rise to a second coming. “These are dark days, but we’ve seen dark days before,” he said. “It took Jimmy Carter to get us Ronald Reagan.” 

It did not take much imagination to realize who Cruz thought would play the role of Reagan. And he did not seem overly perturbed by the subsequent question from the audience, from an ex-Romney campaign staffer, now with the conservative website Free Beacon, who had the temerity to note that, unlike Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama had, you know, just won a second term.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis