I just spent three days at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the preeminent national gathering of the conservative movement. It was nothing but spectacle—full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Anne Coulter hurled eighth-grade insults at presidential candidates (John Edwards is a “f*ggot”; Al Gore seems to be “up to 400 pounds”). Grover Norquist called conservatives who vote with Democrats “rat heads in a Coke bottle” (bad for the brand). Senator Jim Inhofe called man-made global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated" and "eco-terrorist radicals" like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals the "number one" FBI threat to safety.
The confusing thing is that I cheered along with them for the first five minutes of every speech. I, too, appreciate the wonder of America and feel lucky to live here. I, too, value personal freedom and individual liberty. I admire the founding geniuses who created a constitutional structure that has lasted 230 years. I stood for the final ovations, Stars and Stripes playing in the background, for a nation of ideas that is a beacon of hope around the world.
But after the platitudes—which they call principles—everything turned strange. A panel called “Why Liberals are Hell-Bent on Raising Our Taxes” made no mention of fiscal deficits, balanced budgets or the simple fact that services like schools, roads and courts cost money. Any discussion of our troubled health care system immediately degenerated into accusations of government control and “Soviet-style Hillary care.”
The conference devoted two full panels to attacking "activist judges who overturn the will of the people." Nobody mentioned that that the founding geniuses they just applauded deliberately created an independent judiciary to protect the cherished principle of individual liberty from the tyrannies and passions of an inflamed majority. Conservatives can value individual liberty or they can assail judges. They can't do both.
Nonetheless, we get from conservatives this assault on fantasy enemies. On a panel called “Reining in the Courts,” Jan LaRue of Concerned Women for America said judges use laws as an "etch-a-sketch for their personal preferences." She started with the judge who struck down warrantless wiretapping, then made up a story of a judge who interprets a will giving the full inheritance to the kids to mean that the money should be evenly split between PETA and the American Civil Liberties Union. She concluded that the president should disregard the courts and continue wiretapping. "I would," she said to thunderous applause. Ten minutes earlier the same audience had cheered constitutional government and the rule of law.
Solutions were never offered; only attacks. Indeed, many of the problems put on the agenda weren’t problems at all, just issues designed to divide or inflame. The conference gave the death tax, the pejorative conservatives like to use for the estate tax, much attention. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., called it "the most punitive and unfair tax of all." Nobody seemed to notice that the tax doesn’t apply to estates under $2 million, is rarely paid by anybody and advances the American ideal that wealth should be earned, not given.
The conference barely recognized the conservative paradox on moral issues it created. These conservatives don't just seek to live moral lives on their own—which we should all do and can all applaud. They seek to use government power to control how other people live their lives. Traditional values start out as an applause line but end as a bludgeon.
Everyone cheered "traditional marriage." Few examined the contradiction of self-styled “small government conservatives” stopping adults from using their free will to formalize their relationships. Nobody "defending" marriage explained what it is about gay marriage that is dangerous to other people.
Everyone wanted to protect the unborn; fetuses needed to be protected from liberals who think “humans are for your sexual pleasure.” But with all of the discussion about Roe v. Wade, no panel offered ways to reduce abortion through family planning or expediting adoption. Certainly no one discussed low wages, expensive day care or absent health care—the troubles cited by so many women making this difficult decision.
Immigration got great attention, none of it positive. Immigrants never played a key role in the economy or epitomized America’s role as the home for the tired, the poor or the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. All they did was take our jobs, threaten our sovereignty or compromise our national security. Speaker after speaker craved a fence.
The hallways thrummed with the desire for power. "Permanent majority" was an ambition cited at the same level as freedom and liberty. The only obstacle to power was liberals, always presented in caricature. Liberals were the “sworn enemy,” "screaming harpies," "Hollywood hedonists" and “people who want to hug terrorists.” Conservatives blamed this “powerful elite” for everything, even though the conservative party has held all three branches of the federal government for years.
The conservatives at central headquarters don’t seem to have learned the lesson of 2006. America is tired of Bible-thumping division. Americans want real solutions to real problems. They’re catching on to the bait-and-switch: The first five minutes of every speech are appealing, but the policies that follow are catastrophic. An ideology that disdains government is destined to govern badly.
Adapting what Ronald Reagan once said of government, conservatism isn’t the solution to our problem. Conservatism is the problem. If it doesn’t grow up, 2006 was only the beginning.