They are brought together by a single tantalizing feeling: President Obama has in their eyes gone from hero to zero in a short 13 months, meaning Democrats are running scared ahead of the 2010 mid-term elections.
Meeting at a giddy Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, conservative activists and presidential hopefuls are painting a picture of a party in resurgence.
"[Obama] had more mojo than any president that I remember when he was inaugurated a year and a month ago.… But now, the master-mesmerizer has lost his mojo," Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa told about 1,000 attendees at the annual conference. "And if we stand our ground as constitutional conservatives, he's not going to get it back." [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph listed the wrong US representative.]
But if Republicans are playing the role of Dr. Evil stealing Austin Power’s mojo, there’s always the concern that Obama can, in fact, steal that elusive something-something back in time for the closing credits, er, the 2010 mid-term elections.
Can independents be drawn in?
And the GOP’s bluster at CPAC belies a big question: Amid the red-meat speeches and Democrat-bashing, what does the GOP actually stand for beyond bromides about smaller government and muscular foreign policy? Will key independents ultimately buy into the party’s newfound fiscal discipline – or be turned off by what critics call the wingnut factor?
Listening to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty urge Americans to emulate Tiger Woods’s wife Elin Nordegren and “take a 9-iron and smash the window out of big government,” critics like Gail Collins at the New York Times and Mike Lux at the Huffington Post point out how too many CPAC Republicans revel in violent imagery to get their points across.
“While there has always been a crazy streak in the conservative movement … the most wild extremists have never taken over the movement lock, stock and barrel before,” writes Mr. Lux. “Today they are thoroughly in control.”
And Obama himself seemed to sense the divide between partisan cheerleading and dire realities in Washington this morning when he invited Republicans to a healthcare summit but added, “I don't want to see this meeting turn into political theater.”
More middle-of-the-road critics say Republicans are ultimately hawking the same tired small government message, seemingly oblivious to the fact that deficit reduction may require tax increases along with spending cuts.
“Intellectually honest conservatives are homeless,” writes the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder.
Ground shifting for CPAC
Nevertheless, the ground does seem to be shifting for conservatives at CPAC.
Founded in 1974, CPAC is today a sort of culture war relic, epitomized by Gov. Pawlenty on Thursday citing God as the first of four conservative principles. Nothing wrong with that, except many Americans might read that as commentary on divisive social issues such as abortion and homosexuality.
“We're in the fight for fiscal discipline and limited government, and we are on the side of the American people,” Mr. Pence said. “This is our moment.”
Mr. Pence wasn’t the only one to witness the tent poles getting wider at this year’s CPAC.
“[I]t was striking to see in speech after speech many of the wedge issues that so preoccupied the most recent GOP majority – Terry Schiavo, abortion, stem cells, gays, family values, religion in government – sublimated to the GOP's laser-like focus on the economy and to see the CPAC's attempts … to widen their tent,” writes Jay Newton-Small in Time.
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