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Weekend Warriors

Illustration by Miguel Valenzuela

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.”

Then came the bad news. Toomey had recently commissioned a poll in the 20 most vulnerable Republican congressional districts. And the results, he said, were alarming. By a margin of 62 percent to 29 percent, the respondents said the country was “on the wrong track.” The Democrats topped Republicans by a margin of 42 percent to 36 percent in overall favorability ratings. President Bush scored a rating of 40 percent favorable to 52 percent unfavorable. Congress fared worse, at 35 percent favorable to 45 percent unfavorable.

Staring at these sorts of numbers, Toomey mused, this fall’s elections might end up for Republicans more like 1974 — the post-Watergate Democratic sweep — than like the legendary 1994 vote. “The war in Iraq is the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” Toomey said to a grim-faced and silent audience. “A major downturn there could drown anything we do.”

“We have to acknowledge we have a president who is not popular,” Toomey added. And this was said a few days before the new CBS poll placed Bush’s popularity at an all-time low of 34 percent. “We also have a war that is not popular, and there is also that whiff of corruption.”

Toomey’s stark assessment was seconded and amplified by a number of other conservative politicians. John Andrews, former Colorado state senator and a firebrand conservative, told his stone-faced audience: “I feel the Republican Party in my state and nationally is a party that has lost its way. Colorado is purple and in danger of turning blue,” he said. “It could be the harbinger for a very stormy 2006.” And unless the party starts offering up a reason to vote Republican this fall, “It’s going to be a very grim year for us.”

Missouri’s Lieutenant Governor Pete Kinder, a close associate of Ashcroft, had his own negative assessment of matters. Like some of the other analysts, he was mostly worried about a low Republican turnout this fall — something that pollsters call the “intensity gap.” Democrats may now be more motivated to vote than Republicans. Citing a growing concern over spending, special-interest earmarks on legislation, and the Abramoff-like corruption scandals, Kinder said, “The demoralization of the party is real. I hear it everywhere.”

Kinder also broke the so-called Republican 11th Amendment and publicly flayed one of the other, earlier invited Republican speakers — Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo. Until recently a little-known backbencher, Tancredo had ridden to national prominence by leading an 80-member House immigration caucus that has become a veritable barricade against reform and liberalization. Tancredo, who was one of the few elected officials to stand with the Minutemen, has repeatedly attacked Bush for proposing a guest-worker program and has opened up a visible rift inside the GOP. During his weekend panel appearance, Tancredo said he was proud that The Wall Street Journal had dubbed his proposed border wall as the Tancredo Wall. “That’s got a nice ring to it,” he told the wildly clapping crowd.

But Kinder scoffed at Tancredo as someone “who will take us back to minority status by replicating nationally what happened in California,” referring to Pete Wilson’s ill-fated support for Proposition 187. “I’m warning you,” Kinder told the crowd, continuing his thrashing of Tancredo. “His tone is going to turn a lot of people off.” Noticing that I had been taking notes during his talk, Kinder came up to me afterward. “I want to make sure you get it right on Tancredo,” he told me. “So write this down as a direct quote from me: ‘Reaganism was sunny, optimistic, confident and forward-looking. Tancredo is angry and defensive. The difference couldn’t be clearer. If we go down that latter path, we lose.’?”

The most sobering message of the weekend, however, came in its closing hours, when Arizona Congressman John Shadegg spoke directly to the polka-dotted elephant that had been sitting, heretofore unaddressed and ignored, in the meeting rooms for the previous three days: Jack Abramoff. As the weekend unfolded, I had been wondering if anyone was going to actually mention the unmentionable. Shadegg did much more. “We’re literally whistling by the graveyard, facing the stiffest of headwinds,” Shadegg said, referring to the Abramoff scandal.

Shadegg, you will remember, was the unsuccessful “reform” candidate, earlier this year, in the running to replace scandal-plagued Tom DeLay as House majority leader. It isn’t that Shadegg is some sort of liberal. On the contrary, he’s a McClintock sort of conservative, born literally into the austere traditions of Barry Goldwater (his father managed two of Goldwater’s campaigns). Shadegg has established a rep as a leading advocate for reduced spending, tax relief and states’ rights. He has called Michael Moore the “Antichrist,” and said that people who supported John Kerry for president “have mental-health problems.” So you might say the guy has real Republican street cred.

“I believe these scandals are probably the end of the 1994 revolution,” he warned in what turned out to be a scathing soliloquy over the ethical collapse of his own party. “Back then, we said we were going to change the way Congress does business — no more closed midnight meetings and so on. But we have many, many more closed meetings and rules than the Democrats ever had. We have fallen embarrassingly, shockingly short. Look, guys, it’s not that hard to be honest. But look at Cunningham and Abramoff. We have failed. And it’s not just some bad apples. It’s the scandal that keeps on giving. Congress does two things well: overreacting and doing nothing. In terms of Cunningham and Abramoff, we’re doing both. Congress has not passed a law taking away pensions from convicted members. Our own leadership has blocked this!

“That poll that Pat Toomey talked about has two shocking findings,” Shadegg continued. “In an open-ended question, it asked, What are the first two words you associate with the Republican Congress? The answers were ‘Iraq’ and ‘corruption.’ All this threatens the Republican majority. We promised to shrink government, and it might have been harder to do that than we thought. But it’s not hard to be honest — and we haven’t.”

Other panels, on the future of the Democratic Party — including one I participated in as a speaker — found little to be optimistic about. The face-off in 2006 seems to be a confrontation between two failed parties, and the tension will be generated by seeing which one fails more.

In that context, I found Shadegg’s pessimistic assessment to be rather uplifting. It was one of the few moments of the weekend that brought a real smile to my face. And it was also, in an odd way, a slightly reassuring moment when it comes to pondering our political system. You can’t help but feel some real admiration for a politician, whatever his ideological position, who isn’t afraid to speak uncomfortable truths to his own followers. We need more of that — on both sides.