Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Conservatives’ Days of Malaise

A quick peek inside the base's team huddle

David Wasserman, U.Va. Center for Politics February 1st, 2007

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I’m sure some very wise person once said that the best time to measure the true character of a party is in its moment of defeat, not its moment of triumph. And so it was with keen anticipation and curiosity that the Crystal Ball attended this past weekend’s Conservative Summit, a well-organized Washington powwow of the conservative movement’s core activists and leading minds held by the National Review Institute.

The star-studded lineup of rightward observers and current and former GOP candidates and elected leaders split its panel and podium time between requisite post-2006 soul-searching and pre-2008 star-searching. But interviews with a variety of attendees yielded a strange and slightly worrisome storyline for conservatives: the crowd of activists wasn’t all that more enthralled by its current pool of leading presidential candidates than it was by the sobering results of last year’s congressional races. Still, it’s worth looking at the right’s attitudes toward each subject one at a time.

Any party that suffers as bad a midterm breakup with voters as the Republicans did last fall is sure to endure a nasty hangover for at least some time after being dumped. But how a party’s base reflects on the fallout can be especially telling. In the case of early 2007’s stung conservatives, the unpopularity of the Iraq War and the incumbent GOP president seems to present a dual burden that few in the rank and file are eager to discuss at length. When the summit’s discussions were hottest, assignment of blame for 2006’s loss tended to vary from a sense of abandonment of core principles, especially small government and limited spending, to a sense of overzealousness and insensitivity towards critical middle-of-the-road voters’ views on specific hot-button issues important to the party.

Take for example the messages former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush brought to the potluck. At breakfast, Gingrich’s hint at a renewed and expanded Contract of America aroused nostalgia among attendees for the post-1994 years when Republican small-government fever was at its heights. At lunch, Bush’s served up a buffet of spending items he had vetoed at the state level, feeding the prevailing sentiment that federal Republicans in Congress had let their gradually increasing appetite for pork get the best of them. Between meals, a spirited debate between former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed and “Elephant in the Room” author Ryan Sager offered starkly different appraisals of the role played by religious conservatives on the political right. Suggesting that “imitation is the highest form of flattery,” Reed argued that Democrats’ increased discussion of personal faith in 2006 amounted to a concession of past GOP success, while Sager clearly disheartened some conservatives in attendance by arguing that an insistence on opposition to gay marriage is a losing strategy for his party over the long term.

But what was perhaps most remarkable about the summit’s tone of introspection with regards to 2006 was its resemblance to Democrats’ desperate demeanor following the presidential election of 2004. Sky-is-falling rhetoric that many on the left had used in the aftermath of President Bush’s reelection, such as “the other side has become better at using language to win” and “many states are moving away from us,” were thrown around often at the summit. Sure, the Democrats may have learned to “keep it simple, stupid” in 2006 and a handful of states are gradually purpling, but have the tables turned so quickly in the past two years that the GOP is doomed in 2008? Of course they haven’t. Such a failure to place the results of 2006 within the historical context of “sixth year itch” elections reflects a naturally exaggerated view of party decline following a bad election cycle. The right should instead take heart that they have two years to turn things around.

To be sure, the question of who will carry their banner in an effort to reverse fortunes and retain the presidency is another matter entirely. And at this juncture, the lack of a single obvious frontrunner for 2008 seems to confuse members of the party that has had one in every election since 1984. Sensing widespread skepticism towards the unknown field of Democratic contenders in 2003, Bill Clinton shot back: “I like this field. I get tired of people saying this field can’t [win]…When someone tells you a person is running for president and he’s not big, it just means he’s not famous yet.” But many Republicans examining the field of GOP contenders in 2007 are experiencing an entirely different kind of malaise: their leading candidates – at the moment Rudy Giuliani and John McCain – ARE household names, but neither maverick has led a political career that will allow them to gain the trust of conservative voters easily.

In an eagerly anticipated dinnertime speech, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney aimed to live up to all of the buzz surrounding him by introducing his candidacy as the credible mainstream conservative choice in the 2008 contest. Was it a flop? Not for the most part, as Romney scored some considerable points by pointing to several examples of governmental efficiency in the Bay State and calling for major belt-tightening in Washington. But Romney devoted precious little of his time to the ongoing war, and he struggled most in the area where conservatives were listening most closely for an answer to their chief question about him. The audience clearly wanted to know: how can a man socially liberal enough to get elected in Massachusetts present himself as a true conservative a more four years later? Indeed, Romney’s explanation required some rhetorical acrobatics; his story of a pro-choice to pro-life conversion moment during a gubernatorial stem cell research lab visit strained the imagination and rang hollow to several of the attendees with whom the Crystal Ball spoke.

With a year to go before the rapid-fire nomination contests, candidates will have time to rise, fall, and resurrect themselves. As we keep saying, timing is everything. But at the outset of 2007, it seems most conservatives are still waiting for their knight in shining armor, a candidate who can strike the right balance between convincing gravitas and conservative grit. An existing candidate or a new entrant may yet claim that mantle, but for now, many on the right sense that a genuine void exists in the 2008 Republican field. Perhaps that’s why when former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie introduced the summit’s lunchtime speaker by saying attendees were fortunate because “If his name were Jeb Smith, he might be in Des Moines right now,” so many faces around the room seemed to say: “I wish his name were Jeb Smith.”

Note: In fairness, the Crystal Ball regrets it was unable to cover former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s Sunday address to the summit.