Instead of a big name—a Bush or an Aschroft—the White House offered policy manna for conservative activists attending the Conservative Political Action Conference in Virginia Thursday.
For more than two decades, CPAC has been a sturdy oak of the conservative movement's message operation. It's where Ronald Reagan honed his skills as a political orator and where young conservatives can glom off the gleam of celebrities like Caspar Weinberger and Dr. Laura Schlessinger. This year, it's a singularly strong launch pad for the president's domestic agenda, which he outlined Tuesday during his State of the Union address.
Speaking first, Marc Racicot, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, praised the party platform—a code phrase, of sorts, and a bow in the direction of pro-lifers, who hope to keep front and center the party's staunch opposition to abortion. A Republican Party spokesman said Racicot wasn't saying anything new but was merely affirming his fidelity to the president's position on the contentious issue.
A bit later in the day, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson said that the administration would spend $135 million to combat teen pregnancy. The money would fund programs that primarily stress sexual abstinence.
Most significantly, but not immediately noticed by the flock, was Thompson's announcement of a small change in regulatory language. From now on, fetuses will be classified as children for the purposes of S-CHIP, a health insurance program.
Thursday afternoon, Thompson told reporters at a Washington hospital that the policy change wasn't pro-life or pro-choice, but was merely aimed at providing prenatal care to women. But Thompson's remarks at CPAC came moments after he reaffirmed the administration's opposition to partial birth abortion and its support for parental notification laws. "Unborn children should be welcomed to life and protected in law," he said." Abortion rights groups immediately denounced the decision but other politicians who support abortion rights were more cautious, hoping that the new language would give states more flexibility to sign women up for health insurance.
To be sure, these policy changes are small. They don't involve large sums of money. But they are bound to be challenged by Democrats and liberals, and serve to boost the socially conservative resume of the Bush administration. They may also energize activists to take to the streets on behalf of conservative candidates. After all, that's the whole point of CPAC.
The State of Conservatism
Before September 11th shifted American politics in Mr. Bush's favor, many right-of-center Republicans were concerned that the administration paid lip service to conservative values in order to attract non-conservative Americans to its politics.
Republicans, like Democrats, still face divisions within their party. Fiscal hawks are upset at the administration's new penchant for more government spending and a return to deficits, while other conservatives welcome the use of government largess for beneficial purposes. Civil libertarians in the party have protested recent Department of Justice policies, while others favor a stronger national security state. Social conservatives are dismayed that many in the party want to reach out to gays and lesbians.
But the reception given to the administration's representatives was strong today. That's because many core movement conservatives have decided to focus on what unites the party, like increased defense spending, lower taxes, limited government intrusion into personal affairs, and a commitment to tradition. (Mr. Racicot's biggest applause line was, "We will resist all efforts to repeal the tax cuts.")
Racicot's ascension to RNC chair, and his moderate record on some issues, revealed some of the stress faults, and he's been working hard in recent days to seal them together. Racicot called today for an "aggressive and civil discussion" of Republican ideas and ideals, and urged the activists to be "aggressive in defense of our principles."
His announcement that the party platform would stay as is appears to have mollified the fears of one of his most persistent critics, the Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition.
"So far, so good," Sheldon said in an interview. Speaking of the platform discussion, he said, "Racicot didn't have to say what he said."
A senior Republican strategist in attendance said Racicot, a Western-style "leave me alone" Republican, was becoming more and more attuned to the realities of his politics.
"A party chairman is a party chairman," the strategist said.
Thompson, Racicot, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice were the biggest draws of the today.
Rice noted the president's commitment to a national missile defense shield, and reiterated his State of the Union pledge to soundly defeat terrorism wherever it existed.
"There are some (countries) who, shall we say, are not moving with alacrity to shut down terror within their borders. They have been put on notice," Rice said.
"In his State of the Union, the President was crystal clear about the growing danger posed by such states as North Korea, Iran and Iraq that pursue weapons of mass destruction."
A White House official at CPAC said that the president strongly appreciates the depth of his conservative base. And true to form, several members of the White House's public liaison staff were in attendance. This White House is consistently attentive to important movement conservative groups. But several attendees questioned why Mr. Bush himself wasn't there. A scheduling conflict, according to the administration.
Speaking to reporters before the conference began, David A. Keene, the president of the American Conservative Union and a CPAC founder, said that he accepted the White House's explanation.
"We can't control the president's schedule. We recognize that this is an important time for him" Keene said.
Asked what would happen if the president didn't attend next year, Keene would only say, "It'd be hard for me to be that nice."
Still, he insists that the problem isn't political, noting the suggestions that Mr. Bush wanted to avoid an explicitly partisan gathering so soon after his State of the Union address.
"Most people believe George W. Bush is a conservative. A president has two tasks. Make sure that people who support him continue to support him. And secondly, he has to sell his policies and reach out to the other."
That said, Keene said he had no complaints about the administration's representation at the event.
But an oft-quoted phrase among conference-goers was Ronald Reagan's rationale for showing up at 17 CPAC conferences: "You dance with the one who brung you."
The Conservative Scene
Much acclaim was reserved for Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who is now a candidate for Congress. Chris Matthews, the MSNBC talk show host, won applause for his repeated pro-American sentiments and his subtle slaps at liberals. Last night, retiring North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms endorsed Elizabeth Dole, who is running to succeed him.
CPAC belies the image of graybeard conservatism. A big portion-perhaps a majority—of CPAC attendees were in their twenties. Many were on College Republican-organized field trips.
Between the speakers (and during stretches when those speakers didn't say much of interest," they walked through the exhibit halls, collecting bumper stickers and literature. For one dollar, the political collector could buy a raffle ticket to win an actual "butterfly ballot" from Palm Beach County. Another company sold an "Election 2000" board game. Self-published authors, like a New York City police officer who was in one of the World Trade Centers as it collapsed, hawked their wares.
Joshua Grosshans, president of the College Republican club at the University of Central Florida, came to CPAC with 11 of his friends, along with his dad, a Baptist preacher in Orlando.
Or maybe it was the other way around.
"Some dads take their kids to go fishing," Rev. Tim Grosshans joked.
Joshua Grosshans said he was encouraged by what he's heard so far.
"The more these speakers talk about conservative ideas, the more conservatives will take away from here."
His father said, "I'm just proud to be an American again."