Dick Cheney kicked off the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week with a preemptory analysis of President Bush's legacy. It was a speech chock full of the self-serving misrepresentations the American publicwhich now rejects Bush's leadership by a huge majorityhas come to expect from the administration. But this was CPAC, an annual gathering of hard-core right-wing activists from across the country who are, in Cheney's words, "the heart and soul of the conservative community."
Attendees cheered when Cheney said that President Bush "faces challenges squarely" without "passing them on to future generations"— ignoring the ongoing war in Iraq and the record deficit that will be created by the president's latest budget. Cheney claimed that letting the Bush tax cuts expire would be one of the "largest government money grabs in American history" because it would supposedly raise taxes an average of $1,800, even though the vast majority of American taxpayers wouldn't see anything close to that tax hike. Cheney got a standing ovation when he insisted that the administration's overseas interrogation program (the program that introduced rendition, black sites, and "we do not torture" into our national vernacular) has obtained important and useful information. At one point during the speech, the audience chanted "Four more years!"
Later, while the crowd waited for Mitt Romney and John McCain to speak, a conservative book seminar began, and panelists extolled the virtues of Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative and Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. "The heroes of Atlas Shrugged were businessmen! Absolutely astonishing!" said Edward Hudgins, executive director of the Atlas Society, an organization that champions Rand's philosophy of "rational, principled individualism." Rand, Hudgins said, instructed her readers to protect their lives, their privacy, and their businesses as they protect their children. "How would you feel if the government decided to molest your children?" he asked.
Over the course of day one, Mitt Romney dropped out of the presidential race and John McCain got booed. (Other things that got booed: Keith Olbermann, France, universal health care, and the idea of a "living Constitution.") The candidates' appearances have been well-covered elsewhere, so I'll only mention that many attendees told me that they will refuse to vote for John McCain, seeing him as not conservative enough. One young man, who must have been born in the late '80s, said that he would write in Ronald Reagan's name.
Griping, in fact, was a major activity at the conference. The fact that a supposed false conservative was about to don the mantle of the Republican Party was irksome enough, but there were also Hillary Clinton, Hollywood, and the liberal media to contend with. Right around the corner, it seemed, waited a welfare/nanny state, attacks from radical jihadists, and a legion of activist judges determined to pervert American society.
And then there are immigrants. After McCain's speech, a man handed out flyers to audience members as they exited the auditorium. "Amerixianada?? Meximerianada??" it read. "Whatever they might call it, we must STOP the gradual, planned merging of America with Mexico and Canada." I asked the man what he thought about John McCain. He snorted. I asked him who he would vote for. "Maybe a third party," he said. "Someone who will really secure the borders." As we were talking, a glowering, heavyset gentleman glanced at the flyer and stopped in his tracks. He poked the man I was speaking with in the chest. "Unless white people like you start having more children, you can kiss this country goodbye," he said.