PHOENIX — John Ashcroft was sitting at the table next to me, his hands on his knees, his lips pursed, bracing for the one-liners he knew would inevitably be coming his way. Conservative L.A.-based comic Evan Sayet was wisecracking on the stage in front of us and was clearly working his rhetorical shtick slowly toward the former attorney general.
The scene was the ballroom of the Biltmore, filled two weekends ago with 350 “movement conservatives” brought together in their annual Restoration Weekend huddle by über-Righty David Horowitz. Horowitz had just presented Ashcroft with this year’s Annie Taylor Award — named for the first woman to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel — and dinner-comic Sayet was serving up the after-dinner dessert: dripping slabs of anti-Liberal red meat.
He’s a funny guy, and he had the crowd howling. Not that this was a difficult room to work. The folks who had paid a couple of thousand bucks each to attend Horowitz’s weekend weren’t exactly here to engage in serious contemplation of the national debate. These sort of politically monochromatic retreats — whether they’re a Horowitz confab, a Nation magazine cruise or a Reason magazine conference (all of which I have spoken at) — are always more about reaffirmation of previously held beliefs than they are about open-minded inquiry. That’s cool. You pay your bucks — you get your sermon. You feel uplifted. You go back home.
So Sayet had this politically predisposed banquet crowd in stitches as he ripped Democrats and liberals for every known human and social malady. But now he was standing right in front of Ashcroft and staring right at him. “No matter what George Bush does, the Liberals blame him! If he were to walk on water, the Liberals would say, ‘Aha! That proves Bush can’t swim!’ They have a little Rolodex when it comes to Bush, and they thumb through it and say, ‘He’s Hitler! Bush is Hitler! Bush is Hitler!’ How about that, John?” Sayet said, nodding his head toward Ashcroft. “For all that work you did, spending four years toiling in the basement of the Justice Department stripping Americans of their civil liberties — what did you get? For all that work, you’re just called a nameless ‘fascist.’ You’ve gotta be saying to yourself, ‘Hey, wait, I’m Hitler too!’ ”
A ruddy-faced Ashcroft took the joke in stride, smiling and bowing his head, and the room burst out with laughter. Not a bad joke, for sure. But the guffawing underlined one of the principal cards in the current pack of beliefs carried around by Bush supporters: Yeah, we might be arrogant, we might be tough and even rude. Call us Nazis, if you like. But we’re right. We’re winning. We’re in power. Get used to it.
The weekend was, indeed, filled with plenty of blasts of right-wing bravado that seemed to suggest the Age of Reagan would stretch into the decades ahead. Congressmen J.D. Hayworth and Tom Tancredo vowing to build walls and deport illegals; former Clinton CIA director and neocon darling Jim Woolsey urging an escalation of the war on terror; Senator John Kyl defending the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program; and Horowitz himself describing his forces as more of a fighting “faction” than a limp party and promoting a new crusade to rid U.S. universities of America-hating professors.
But listening carefully to the handful of serious pols present — those more interested in securing the current conservative majority than in mindlessly pandering to the paying guests — I heard a radically different message seeping out. A sense of fear and loathing seems to be creeping in among those Republicans who prefer to think in cool, strategic terms rather than in purely ideological ones. Maybe even a sense of foreboding that among the many lesser accomplishments of the Bush administration — creating the morass in Iraq, the racking up of record deficits, the mucking about in corruption scandals — we will soon be able to add one more Mission Accomplished: the definitive scuttling of the 1994 Gingrich Revolution. The overturning of Republican rule, and maybe as soon as this November.
During several weekend panels, sandwiched in between the cheerleading speechifying, a number of former and current Republican election officials — the sort of people who actually have to worry about the way people vote — there was some very public hand-wringing over the immediate future of the party.
Some of the darkest vibes were carried by Pat Toomey, a former Pennsylvania congressman who unsuccessfully challenged Senator Arlen Specter from the right in the 2004 primary and who now chairs the pro-business Club for Growth. Toomey prefaced his warning by touching on what he said were the three strengths the Republicans had going into November: “A great economy . . . gerrymandering, because, let’s face it, we’ve carved up the districts the way we’ve wanted them . . . and a Democratic Party spectacularly and specifically devoid of ideas.”