Conservatives can sometimes be their own worst enemies (just like liberals, but that's another column). So hostile reporters to the 30th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in a Washington suburb found what they came for, a few Clinton bashers who don't seem to have heard the news that Bill and Hill are gone from the White House and that Janet Reno is in retirement in Florida.
Bumper stickers announcing pride in being a member of the "Vast Right Wing Conspiracy" seemed especially stale. A wittier slogan was the one admonishing motorists to "Ban Global Whining."
But the fringe, though easy to make fun of, is smaller now. Most of the conservative activists see themselves riding the wave of the future, armed with greater intellectual depth and deeper conviction, inspiring others to follow their lead. "The conservative tide is rising," David Keene, the chairman for the conference told conventioneers. Controlling both Houses of Congress and the White House for only the third time in a century was heady stuff for the 4,000 conservative grass-roots participants to hear.
There were, of course, the traditional splits between the economic conservatives and traditional values folk, but they met together in good cheer and common cause, rallying to the words of Vice President Dick Cheney, the keynote speaker, who praised CPAC for its advocacy of limited government, free enterprise, lower taxes and a strong national defense.
Gone were the dowdy woman and stuffy men of yesteryear. There was a relaxed, casual dress and demeanor, a sense of confidence with a like-minded (more or less) man in the White House. Many seemed surprised that he is considerably more conservative than his father.
Young college women at a luncheon sponsored by the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute discovered a new heroine who combines beauty, brains and a hip appeal to traditional values. Erika Harold, Miss America 2003, in a fuchsia suit with a short skirt and high heels, was unafraid to speak her politically incorrect convictions.
She was home-schooled until the fourth grade and tells how her mother taught her to question rather than accept everything in the textbooks and what her teachers said. Such advice inspired her to protest when a professor in a woman's studies course at the University of Illinois preached that Christianity oppresses women. She argued angrily in another class when it downgraded motherhood, which she took personally, noting that it demeaned her mother who encouraged her in her achievements.
Using the feminist language of "empowerment," she appealed to the young women at CPAC to be steadfast in honoring themselves and the values of family and God.
She entered the Miss Illinois pageant last year after she received her acceptance letter from Harvard Law School: "I hoped it would help pay for the $150,000 education my parents could not afford."
Then it was on to Atlantic City. When the Miss America Organization boasts that the pageant is less a beauty contest than a scholarship program, Miss Harold can quiet some of the snickers (though just one look is all it takes to understand that beauty didn't hurt). Perhaps hardest for Miss Harold is to treat certain people in a Christian manner even though she probably sometimes wants to punch them. "Miss Congeniality" she is not. She described how one pageant contestant gushed over her official photographs, saying how beautiful she looked, and added: 'They don't look a bit like you."
Another woman at the conference received the Ronald Reagan Award, honoring a "soldier" rather than a "general" in the fight for shared conservative ideals. Kay Daly describes herself as "a housewife from Arlington - a stay-at-home mom," but on the side she speaks on behalf of the Coalition for a Fair Judiciary, a grassroots organization that cuts across ideological, racial and theological lines to work for the confirmation of judges who respect "the protective limits of judicial restraint."
In testimony to a House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, she described what she called the mean-spirited callousness with which judicial nominees are sometimes treated in the confirmation process. "I find the lack of civility disgraceful and disrespectful not only to the people nominated but to American democratic institutions," she said.
On receiving her award, she urged the audience to "write, call, e-mail, or send carrier pigeons to your senators, requesting that they do the right thing and vote to confirm Miguel Estrada," the president's nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
"I can think of no better tribute to either those that have gone before me or generations to follow than preserving the legacy of a nation that has a court system intact, with the rule of law paramount."
If this is a conspiracy, it's one we can all join.