The conservatives in party frocks and black tie were restless. They were hungry and thirsty. The bread had been devoured, the wine bottles were empty, and the speaker had not yet begun. There was one speech and one hour to go until dinner was served.
This was tradition, to mark the protocol at the annual Irving Kristol Lecture by the American Enterprise Institute, and everyone subscribed to the formal contract: "If ideology be the food of politics, think before you eat. Give me excess of it." Very Washington. There would be time to eat, drink and be merry after the enlightenment.
This was not the Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity crowd; there would be no knock 'em, sock 'em, beat 'em rhetoric. The audience expected something "thoughty," a speech from a conservative intellectual accustomed to looking at the big picture.
Tonight's speaker was Charles Murray, whose ideas give liberals indigestion and usually spark intelligent debate that eventually spills over into public policy. His book, "Losing Ground," published a quarter of a century ago, demonstrated how many government social programs, for all their good intentions, contributed to the destruction of social networks for poor black families. His data and analysis were the impetus for the welfare reform legislation that Bill Clinton, reluctant or not, signed into law.
While Murray fretted that his subject, the nature of happiness, sounded abstract, he knew an audience upset over President Obama's unfolding domestic agenda would find it "relevant" when put in the form of a succinct question: "Do we want the United States to be like Europe?"
The question was not about the cozy ambiance of the cafes of Paris, the beer gardens of Munich or the tapas bars of Barcelona; he's known to partake of the delights that make everyday life in Paris and Berlin, Amsterdam and Rome easy to love. But the Europe of familiar song and story will disappear in the lifetimes of those now small children if present trends continue.
Europeans suffer catastrophically low birthrates, as if the pleasures of daily life are not wonderful enough to pass on to the succeeding generations. The price of the long vacations, extended maternity leaves, generous child allowances and good daycare of the modern welfare state will be collected soon enough, and will be steep indeed.