Gawking in Memphis

Two inconclusive days with Republican activists.

Sen. John McCain

In Memphis, Tenn., they celebrate only the thin Elvis. On clock radios, roller luggage, and dinner plates, he swivels his narrow hips everywhere. The fat Elvis of the 1970s is almost impossible to find, even in ads for weight loss and drug rehab centers. Last weekend, the 2,000 Republican activists meeting in Memphis looked past the bloated big-government conservatism of George W. Bush and focused on their own young Elvis, Ronald Reagan.

The GOP faithful from 36 states gathered at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference to hear from 2008 presidential candidates (read my reviews here), congressional leaders, and governors from Texas, Mississippi, and Arkansas. The delegates didn’t exactly ignore President Bush. In fact, they tried to buck him up. Several times when he was praised from the podium, they stood and applauded. They voted for him as a write-in candidate in the straw poll to show party solidarity. Florida GOP Chairwoman Carole Jean Jordan wore a gold “W” pin big enough for toddlers to climb on. But in the hallways, it was Ronald Reagan’s name you kept hearing from delegates. When politicians wanted to inspire the audience about the election ahead, they talked about the Gipper. Even plain-spoken House Speaker Denny Hastert strained for poetry as he recounted how Reagan defeated communism and helped millions “breathe the wind of freedom.”

No one talked much about Bush’s ambitious freedom agenda. Speakers praised the military and his determination to defeat the terrorists, but only John McCain embraced the idea Bush has put at the center of his presidency: spreading democracy through the Middle East. Instead, speakers called for repealing the estate tax, sealing the border, and shrinking government. Explicitly or implicitly they all called for the party to return to its Reagan roots, a repackaging Hastert inadvertently affirmed when he misspoke and said: “politics is a resale business.”

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s suggestion that everyone stop “all the hand-wringing going on around the Republican party” was a kind of yearning for the muscular conservatism of a generation ago, and an attempt to remind the audience just how far they’d come to become the majority party. More than one speaker reminded them of the era when two votes for a GOP candidate in a Southern county meant the Republican had voted twice.

Perhaps this nostalgia is what made it hard to find the psychological center of the event. In the dark of the Peabody Hotel’s exhibition hall, politicians pushed hot buttons, and the audience responded with whoops and waved flags. This is what participants are supposed to do at a political rally (in addition to wearing oddly shaped hats  and too many buttons). But the theatrics reminded me that despite the turmoil in the GOP today, this is a party that rallies around its leaders at tough moments—it supported Bob Dole for president in 1996 when he never had a prayer of winning. And that’s why, despite flashes of upset with George Bush, his Republican base remains behind him.

The message I got from delegates outside the hall was more complex than simple party—or presidential—loyalty. They knew what they wanted: smaller government, less taxes, and a strong national defense. They just didn’t think they were getting that from Washington. “Us little bitty people feel like the Republican Party is leaving its core values,” said Sharon Honea of Mississippi. One delegate, who refused to give his name, lamented after a closed-to-the-press briefing by White House officials: “They had their message. I wish it had had more meat on the bones.”

The swirling scene in the hotel lobby was a perfect complement to the orderly exhibition hall. At one end, a bartender served drinks, in the middle ducks swam in the fountain, and at the other end, Chris Matthews interviewed pundits and politicians. Matthews was the star of the swirl, as even hardened anti-media attendees stole onto the set to have themselves photographed in his seat. One gentleman, who had literally sniffed at me when I first stopped him with my pen and pad, became my best friend after he saw me on Hardball. (He gave me his business card twice).

The way some of the speakers talked about Washington, you’d never know Republicans were in charge. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who represents eastern Memphis, complained about the “40 years of Democratic Congress,” and described Washington as a “monument that Democrats have built for themselves.” Sen. George Allen complained about senators in their “cushy seats” and championed austere legislation that would “bring accountability to Washington.” He called for a balanced budget amendment and legislation that would withhold senators’ pay if they didn’t complete the budget on time. Who are those nameless, faceless senators?

Only South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham took any responsibility for the growth in spending under Republican control. “I want to apologize to you,” he said. “We’re spending too much of your money. I want to apologize for the culture of Washington created on our watch. I am sorry we have gone native. … We’re growing the government at a pace that makes Democrats look thrifty.” I thought guards were going to pull him from the stage.

Graham’s candor was not met with a standing ovation, but he may have confused some of the social conservatives in the crowd when he opened by saying he had a headache from the night before. It was the event’s only hangover joke, but there were plenty of other yuks, usually at the expense of the Democrats and more specifically at Hillary Clinton. Sen. Mitch McConnell even hauled out a joke about Bill Clinton’s philandering. A&E plans to make a biography of Hillary’s life, said McConnell, who wants to become Senate majority leader. “When Bill found out that Sharon Stone was going to play Hillary, he offered to play himself.” It got a laugh, though everyone had to quiet down quickly because McConnell immediately followed that line by talking about the planes that flew into the World Trade Center.

The weekend groaned with those kinds of messy gear changes. More than one speaker asked delegates to ignore the 2008 hype and focus on the 2006 elections, just before introducing one of the 2008 candidates who had come to Memphis to speak, rally activists, and do well in the straw poll in the hopes of improving their presidential prospects.

The outcome of that poll was as hard to read as the rest of the conference. Local favorite Bill Frist won with 36 percent, but got very little support outside of his state. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney came in second with 15 percent of the vote, which was surprising for a Yankee. It may not have been a genuine groundswell. In addition to the voters I talked to who were impressed by the governor, I found a few others who said he wasn’t their first pick but who voted for him anyway because his supporters had paid for their hotel room for the weekend. McCain, the front-runner, came in fifth, but he’d told voters to cast their ballots for Bush, which is why the president came in third with 10 percent. They all came to Memphis but nobody left as king.