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High Tea in the Wilderness

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The pundits, wonks and wannabes are busy debating what this week's primary elections mean. Newt Gingrich says Barack Obama has only "a 20 percent chance" of re-election two years hence (and he wants to be the reason why).

Punditry and wonkery are great fun, and occasionally get things right, but a man named Jonathan Kahn actually represents something new for conservatives to sing about. He's on his way to becoming an authentic hip-pop culture hero.

When he made the front page of The Wall Street Journal, it looked like the journal of high finance had been smoking something from the '60s. Why would a guitar-plucking singer from Hollywood who wears sunglasses, a baseball cap and a fashionably scruffy beard that begs for soap and a razor be news? But you quickly learn that he's not a throwback, but a leap forward. His lyrics to "American Heart'" appeal to patriotic derring-do:

Go on, raise the flag

I got staaaarrrs in my eyes.

It's tea party time from Searchlight, Nev., to Music Row in Nashville.

Kahn, who has sung at tea party rallies under the name Jon David, is a unique phenomenon on the left coast. He sings love songs to America and rails against Hollywood that "benefits so much from capitalism and bashes it at the same time."

Though he's been an incognito conservative in the town that tinsel made, he's no longer afraid to have his picture snapped with Sarah Palin. He even takes off his glasses for full facial identification. The two are in sync over what's important -- personal liberty and responsibility, tax cuts and smaller government.

What the tea partiers have accomplished, along with dramatically changing the terms of the debate, is to render the establishment stuffy. They've brought vigor and vitality to conservative convictions and a freshness to conservative thinking.

Now liberals are loathe to call themselves "liberal" and have taken to calling themselves "progressives." They know that liberalism is anathema to most Americans and the political center is shaped by conservative ideas. That's why President Obama in campaign mode ran as a centrist, a mediator and a uniter. He blew his cover with the bullying push for ObamaCare, hence his dramatic fall in the public-opinion polls.

Sen. Evan Bayh, once thought to be Democratic presidential material, knew what he was talking about after the 2004 presidential election, which George W. won.

"We need to be a party that stands for more than the sum of its resentments," he said. "In the heartland where I come from ... we're caricatured as a bicoastal cultural elite that is condescending at best and contemptuous at worst to the values that Americans hold in their daily lives."

Not many liberals listened, and they won four years later when conservatives retreated from sounding a strong message. The conventional wisdom after Obama won the White House was that conservatives should get ready to spend time in the wilderness. To prepare for this camping trip, R. Emmett Tyrrell, the witty and erudite editor of the American Spectator, distributed 400 copies of the L.L. Bean catalogue to guests at his magazine's annual dinner. "Once in the wilderness, I planned to pitch my tent close to that of the comely Gov. Palin," he says. "As it turned out, conservatism's wilderness years only lasted a few months."

Though conservative Republicans didn't need Bob Tyrrell's tents and boots, they could use his more serious advice about how to return to the Promised Land (as Washington imagines it). In his new book, "After the Hangover: The Conservatives' Road to Recovery," he offers scathing criticism of where conservatives have gone wrong, and offers directions for getting it right once more: The "party of ideas" forgot the intellectual foundations of conservatism.

"Whereas in the past conservatism's most prominent voices had been intellectuals," he says, "by the 1990s the intellectuals had been replaced by personalities -- that is to say, outstanding controversialists, often astoundingly vulgar."

He quotes longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer's observation that "every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business and eventually degenerates into a racket."

Many conservatives were eager to join the rackets. They were courted as celebrities and earned huge sums of money running their mouths with clever sound-bites, but lacked a profound grasp of the conservative moment's founding principles of liberty and limited government, the fertile ground for intellectual growth. Intellect that was alive and energetic in other areas of American life, like Silicon Valley, took a sabbatical in politics, and conservatives never created the culture to fight the battle of ideas.

It's too early to tell if the tea party movement can actually spark a renaissance of conservative ideas, but if Jonathan Kahn is more than a passing fancy, the conservative counterculture may have found its Tambourine Man.

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