Crazy Popular, or Just Crazy?

In New Orleans, Republicans debate the best way to sell their message and defeat Obama.

NEW ORLEANS—This year’s Republican Leadership Conference reminds me of that story about prisoners telling jokes. They have all become so familiar with the jokes that they assign them numbers. A  shout of “Nine!” can make everyone in the cellblock roar with laughter. But when a new guy tries it by yelling out “Five!” no one laughs. “You told it wrong,” his bunkmate tells him. At this weekend’s conference, all a speaker had to do was mention a hot-button issue and the crowd would react. The greatest hits: Europeans, ATM machines, global warming advocates, Nancy Pelosi, White House czars, the Federal Reserve, Brazilian oil, and Obama apologizing for America. When Michele Bachmann announced that she was the author of the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act, she got a standing ovation.

The Republican Party is intense, fed up and worried. But until the primary process sorts itself out, activists sitting in the meat-locker temperatures of the New Orleans Hilton are frustrated in limbo: Desperate to take up the cause against President Obama, but determined not to pick someone who yells “2012” but tells it so wrong no one votes for the Republican.

Two different approaches for success in next year’s election emerged during the first two days of the conference, highlighting the central fault line in Republican politics between pragmatism and principle. This is not a new story—in politics or the Republican Party—but some of the players are new, and the stakes are high for a country whose voters are worried about the future. “In my 42 years in presidential campaigns, this is the first time I’ve heard this statement,” said Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi. “I’m afraid my children and grandchildren are not going to inherit the country I inherited.”

Barbour and other Republicans could be accused of hyperbole. The out-of-power party always tries to make the situation seem as dire as possible. But the fear he articulates animates both parties. 62 percent of the country thinks America is on the wrong track according to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. An astounding 78 percent of the public is dissatisfied with the direction of the country, according to the Gallup poll. It’s just that the two parties put the blame in different places: China, corporations, unions, Obama.

Addressing this underlying worry will be the key task of the president elected in 2012. In the GOP there is agreement on the villain, but not quite on the method of deposing him. Barbour made the pragmatic case you’d expect from a former chairman of the national party.  “Don’t get hung up on purity,” he said. “In politics, purity is a loser.” He reminded the crowd of Ronald Reagan’s saying that someone who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is your friend and ally—”he’s not a 20 percent traitor.” The message was clear: Don’t let a few disagreements prevent you from picking a presidential nominee who can beat Obama.

Barbour was well received. So was his speech, which was full of the witticisms and the slow-rolling jokes that are his trademark. Barbour gives voters jokes they can take home in their pocket, a key skill for any successful politician. Anyone who ran their business like the federal government “could write a book,” Barbour said. “And it would start with Chapter 11.” Unlike other speakers at the conference, who tended to grind the humor in with the heel of their shoe, Barbour’s is merely needling: “Obama’s policy of driving up the price of energy seems to be the only policy that works.”

As if to bring the opposing viewpoint in the GOP field into stark contrast, Barbour was followed by Rep. Tom McClintock of California, who argued the party would lose in 2012 if it compromised on principles. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina spoke an hour later and sounded the same theme, reminding voters of what he said last fall: “I’d rather have 30 Republicans that believe in the principles of freedom than 60 Republicans who don’t believe in anything at all.” Some in the crowd stood to applaud. DeMint noted that Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Rand Paul of Kentucky had all been elected on this theory.

Barbour would agree with DeMint in principle, but might argue that where the line falls between pragmatism and principle has yet to be determined. Rep. Michele Bachmann thinks she knows. A crowd favorite, she was surfing off of the positive reviews of her New Hampshire debate performance where one poll shows she got a bump. In an era of no compromise, Bachmann presents herself as a fighter in the arena. For certain candidates it might be a liability to be a Washington politician. It isn’t a liability when your message is that you are a constant irritant to business as usual. 

Much of the first two days of the conference were spent railing at Obama’s policies. Health care reform and financial regulatory reform were the two main targets, with a big dose of irritation that Obama has not allowed sufficient exploration of domestic sources of energy. Even amid this constant stream of hyperbole, however, Bachmann stood out. “You survived Katrina and you survived President Obama’s oil-drilling moratorium,” she said. “There’s nothing you can’t survive.”

Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana warned the audience late Friday to avoid too much bile. Recalling the “shrill, absurd and negative rhetoric” of those who hated George Bush, he said, “We must not mimic their shallow approach.” Later, in an interview with Politico’s Jonathan Martin, Jindal was more pointed: “I think It’s hypocritical to say, ‘Well, it’s not patriotic when they do that to President Bush but it’s OK for our side to [do] it to President Obama.”

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich offered the most actual ideas. Gingrich had a five-point plan for everything from taxes to energy. He would eliminate the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, considered the nation’s most liberal, allow businesses to expense all the new equipment they would buy and replace the EPA with the ESA: the “environmental solutions agency.” Leaving aside for the moment whether any of his ideas are plausible or good, he does distinguish himself from the rest of the Republican field. He has spent time thinking (maybe that vacation was actually worth it). He has a notion of how to proceed, and some idea of how the presidency actually works. He is not timid about laying out what he wants to do with some specificity. This should be encouraged in every presidential candidate. Most are timid, waddling onstage in a Michelin Man suit of bromides and poll-tested phrases.

When you’re running against an incumbent, this is safe politics. House Republicans, now in the majority, proved this in the last election. Too much specificity gives people details to be unhappy about. Herman Cain knows this very well. He promises common-sense solutions, but his policy prescriptions are not deep dish. However, he does have lots of pleasing aphorisms and sayings that you can imagine would look nice on one of those motivational posters. Comparing himself, as he often does, to the aerodynamically challenged bumble bee that “didn’t get the memo” that it wasn’t supposed to be able to fly, he says: “I didn’t get the memo that I’m not supposed to run.”

And then there is Rep. Ron Paul. A few minutes before taking the stage, the empty spaces in the ballroom were filled up with young, sign-wielding followers. When Cain said an attack on Israel should be considered an attack on the United States, the isolationist Paul forces booed. The establishment Republicans in seats stood to cheer and drown them out. Knowing the Paul was due to speak next, the men in blazers and women with elaborate pins trickled out of the VIP section.

The hall, which had already been pretty lively, erupted into a roar. “End the Fed!” was the first loud chant, but it was hard to keep track as the message of personal freedom and liberty excited his crowd. (They applaud with a practiced enthusiasm that could pulverize a walnut). Paul was a roving abolitionist, singling out for elimination government regulations on milk, hemp, drugs, and abortion. He got a little wound up. Federal bureaucrats even “get involved in education,” he said. “The TSA tells you what your kids can do. “

The VIP section grew very still while he talked about drug legalization and a highly limited U.S. foreign policy. When he cited Reagan to support his argument that U.S. foreign policy should be based on the simple rule that we wouldn’t do anything to another country we wouldn’t want done to us, it was almost too much for them. 

After two days filled with talk of freedom, Paul seemed like the pure form of the argument. Quoting from Samuel Adams, he defined his cause and followers as the “irate tireless minority willing to start the brushfires of freedom in the minds of man.” Then he noted with a wry smile that “others who are running for leadership are starting to use our language.” As if to prove his point, when DeMint took the stage he couldn’t help but comment on Paul’s speech. “I used to think you were crazy, Ron,” he said. “But I’m starting to think I’m a little crazy myself.”

Become a fan of  John Dickerson  on Facebook.