Conservative Angst

Republicans descend on the National Review’s post-election summit to ask: “Why?”

Freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), here during the Republican National Convention in August, attended this past weekend’s National Review conference.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A well-stocked open bar cures all angst. The reception room at the National Review Institute’s post-election summit has four of ’em, loaded high with rum, whiskey, vodka, and triple sec, and O’Doul’s for those who want to fake it. When there’s an evening lull in the Omni Shoreham’s main ballroom, there’s a party waiting in the mini-ballroom across the beige hallway. Early on Friday evening hundreds of conservatives pack the room, stepping in and out of line depending on whether they’re thirsty or whether they’d rather talk to one of the available icons—Mark Steyn! Jonah Goldberg! Rich Lowry!

I get stuck between Steyn, a ring of his fans, and a bar, where I meet an Orlando dermatologist named Darrin. He’d volunteered for Mitt Romney’s campaign, “making calls from my office” when he wasn’t working or raising his kids, and he wasn’t surprised when Romney lost, because he doesn’t put any graft past Barack Obama. “I’m worried about a dictatorship,” he says—really, we have been talking for maybe three minutes before he lays this on me. “I mean, it happened in history. History repeats. Why couldn’t it? How about all the Muslim Brotherhood czars? He’s got like eight different guys in the administration who are members of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

When I start to sound skeptical, Darrin pulls out his iPhone and forwards me an infographic. It’s titled “Muslim Brotherhood Infiltrates Obama Administration,” and it shows six Muslims who work in the administration and “enjoy strong influence.” Another way of putting it: Six mid- and low-level staffers in the administration have, in the past, appeared on panels staged by frightening-sounding organizations. But the evidence worries Darrin. “If I have to go to a freakin’ island to save my kids,” he says. “I’ll do it. I’ll leave the country.”

Any hack can roll into a political conference, find the most outré attendees, and pretend that the room was packed with nothing but. National Review is a standard target of this sort of journalism. At least three times, liberals have embedded on the magazine’s biennial post-election cruises, and come out with feature-length contributions to the Those Crazy Conservatives genre. In most respects, Darrin was like the other NRI summit ticket-holders I talked to—a middle-aged guy with a successful business, worried about his lost country, worry deepened by a steady diet of conservative media.

But toward the end of the conference on Sunday, I sit in on a panel titled “What is a conservative foreign policy?” And in it, National Review’s Andrew McCarthy asks why Huma Abedin had been allowed, for so long, to work alongside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, holding a security clearance.

“We have people throughout our government who have connections to the Muslim Brotherhood,” says McCarthy. “Not, like, tenuous connections. Strong connections. We have a situation where, in our intelligence community, they have made a policy of purging information in the training materials of our law enforcement agents, our intelligence agents, and our military people, if the information casts Islam in a bad light—which, back in the 1990s, when I was a prosecutor, we used to call evidence.”

That gets applause, something that was scarce and hard-earned at the weekend conference. National Review has only held two other post-election summits—they save ’em for real debacles. In 1993, William F. Buckley gathered 1,000 conservatives in the nearby Mayflower Hotel, to vent and strategize about the threat of Bill Clinton. In 2007, after Democrats took back Congress, NRI met at the J.W. Marriott up the street to hear from potential 2008 saviors.

“Mark [Steyn] gave an incredible speech at that conference,” recalls Jonah Goldberg, joining Steyn onstage Saturday night for a “Night Owl” banter session—cash bar this time. “He closed his speech with one of the funniest lines that’s ever been said on the public stage. Ladies and gentlemen, the next president of the United States, Mitt Romney!

Laughter and groans. Conservative donors and thinkers respect Mitt Romney more than they did the defeated George H.W. Bush or the ousted, forgotten Speaker Dennis Hastert. In 1993, then-NR editor in chief John O’Sullivan told conservatives that they were in the midpoint of the “Bush-Clinton” era—that Bush had betrayed the Reagan revolution, and could not be considered part of it. In 2013, Romney is seen as a fundamentally decent man who simply did not know how to “message” conservatives’ beliefs or explain what Obama was doing wrong. “He spoke conservatism,” says Charles Krauthammer in a Friday night Q&A, “as a second language.” Speak it as a first language, and you can win.

Every elected Republican at the conference attempts to prove that. On Friday, NR’s Jay Nordlinger asks freshman Rep. Tom Cotton to swat away some of the liberals’ myths. Why did Republicans lose Hispanics? “We’re quasi-racist, or maybe racist without the quasi,” says Nordlinger. “It’s supposed to be killing us.” Cotton doesn’t know how to fix it. “I think Romney only got 27 percent [of Hispanic votes], but John McCain four years ago got 31 percent when he’d been the sponsor of an immigration bill,” he says. “It’s presumptuous and condescending to think that Hispanics, as a class, are only focused on immigration.” Will conservatives have to accept the “momentum” for gay marriage? “It’s only this last year that people in any state have decided to accept gay marriage,” says Cotton. “In California, four years ago, [they] voted for traditional marriage.”

It’s a curious answer. If people come out for something they opposed four years earlier, doesn’t that something have some oomph? Cotton is a compelling politician with a Harvard/Marine Corps résumé, but he won 59 percent of the vote in a district that gave Mitt Romney 62 percent. How do you win back the Obama voter? He doesn’t know, and you wouldn’t expect him to know. On Saturday, Rep. Paul Ryan tells conservatives that they’ll have to find leverage where they can, because “the president will bait us.  He’ll portray us as cruel and unyielding.”

Ryan would know—his campaign was supposed to educate voters, in real time, about what Republicans believed. “I looked at the GOP ticket,” says conservative columnist Amity Shlaes at a Saturday panel, “and I asked: Why don’t we flip it? Honestly?”* (Her new book is a fine biography of Calvin Coolidge, blurbed by Paul Ryan.) But Democrats demonized Ryan, and conservatives didn’t allow themselves to understand it. Former congressman and current 15-hours-a-week MSNBC host Joe Scarborough admits that he thought Romney was beating Obama, because Romney was drawing massive crowds. “Mark Halperin called me and said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it!’”

If you stayed in the media feedback loop, you thought the polls were skewed and that the Benghazi or Muslim Brotherhood stories were metastasizing into scandals and that middle-class voters were rallying around Ryan. You were fooled. “We do very well with people who are steeped in the Constitution,” says former Rep. Artur Davis, a Democrat turned Republican who has quickly started using “we” to describe conservatives. “We’re better at talking to each other than we are at talking to people who aren’t like us.”

To stop that happening again, conservatives need better messaging. Nearly everybody at the summit agrees. “One of the best slogans that came out of this campaign was, ‘You built that!’ ” says Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. “I wish we could take a different tack. That was a slogan that was aimed at the 53 percent. It was aimed at business owners. It was aimed at people who already got there. I think their message should have been: You can build that.” It wasn’t that Romney’s “47 percent” tape was even so bad, says Cruz. It was that it fit into a “narrative” that Republicans are cold-blooded and the poor can never achieve anything without handouts.

Fixing a “narrative” sounds deceptively easy, and fair. Democrats didn’t respond to their narrow 2004 loss by nominating an Erskine Bowles-Joe Lieberman ticket. They found a once-in-a-generation political talent, a liberal, black community organizer seen by most voters (until mid-2009) as thoughtfully moderate. No matter what he does, a preponderance of voters let him skate away. No, conservatives need to talk smarter about what they already believe.

On Sunday, I listen to CNBC host Larry Kudlow politely interrogate Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute. Brooks’ top contribution to the movement, so far, was his 2010 book The Battle. In it, he posits that a “30 percent coalition” of takers, who are essentially anti-capitalist, have snowed the rest of us. They look at the welfare state like a hungry virus looks at a healthy cell. Paul Ryan borrowed this idea, word for word, during the 2012 campaign, but Brooks sees much more sweat and toil to come on the “narrative” beat. He tells a joke about a priest, a psychologist, and a free market economist, whose golf game is delayed by two players up ahead, blind men who lost their sight saving children from a burning building. The first two men react like humans. “The free market economist,” says Brooks,” says: ‘You know, it would be more economically efficient if they played at night.’ ”

After the Q&A, I make a coffee run. On the way back, I see Kudlow and Brooks chatting politely with some of the conservatives who’d seen the panel, biding time as the TV host gets his shoes shined.

“I only wish that Romney had talked to you after the 47 percent comment,” says one of the NRI summit attendees. “You could have coached him on how to turn it around.”

Brooks doesn’t really disagree. “He’s of the old business school of never having to say you’re sorry.”

Correction, Jan. 28, 2013: This article originally misspelled the last name of conservative columnist Amity Shlaes. (Return to the corrected sentence.)