This time last year, pundits were predicting the end of conservatism and the Republican Party.
So-called conservative columnists like David Frum, formerly of National Review, and David Brooks of The New York Times were warning conservatives that something was wrong with their beliefs.
But Dave Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, was predicting that President Obama would overreach and help Republicans return to power.
As the elections in Massachusetts, Virginia, and New Jersey demonstrated, Keene was dead on.
This week, Keene presides over the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where a 28 percent increase in registrations over last year underscores his optimism. With more than 10,000 conservative activists attending this year, CPAC has moved to Washington’s Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, where the ballroom holds 2 1/2 times more people than at the previous location.
Besides speeches by the likes of Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Newt Gingrich, Glenn Beck, Michele Bachmann, Liz Cheney, and George Will, CPAC features panels focusing on issues, workshops on campaign techniques, booths run by 96 co-sponsors, and receptions and dinners.
“The difference between this year and previous years is that we really are in the midst of a revitalization of commitment to conservative ideals at the grass roots,” Keene tells Newsmax. “The town-hall meetings, the tea parties, the sort of unwillingness of conservatives at the local level to be directed by establishment politicians and establishment parties, while being dedicated to the very values that national conservatives have been arguing for years, is really a rebirth of the conservative movement.”
In contrast, “All you have to do is think back a year or so, when Barack Obama and the Democrats and the liberals were riding high and we were told that the days of conservative ascendancy had ended, that the conservative philosophy was no longer saleable,” Keene says. “Even some within our own midst were saying that this dedication to limited government just wouldn’t sell in the modern world, that we needed to abandon those kinds of things and get with the program.”
Now, Keene says, “It is precisely those traditional values, that traditional view that individuals rather than the state ought to be making decisions, that has revitalized the movement all the way down to every locality that you can imagine. And that is now flowing in and strengthening the movement nationally as well.”
Looking back, Keene says he underestimated just how much Obama would overreach.
In Keene’s view, Obama “really does seem to believe that the American people really want him to do what he wants to do. And to the extent that they don’t get lined up behind him, it’s either a result of some conspiracy from the right or the influence of cable news and talking heads, or it’s because for some reason the public isn’t smart enough to absorb what he really wants to do for them.”
As it turns out, Obama “misread the public,” Keene says. “In a democratic system, if you misread the public and you try to take people out into a direction they don’t want to go, and you push it enough, you’re going to get just the kind of push-back that Obama’s gotten. And that push-back may not only spell troubled days for him, but it could doom his party in the next election.”
The public’s growing disenchantment with Obama has helped spawn the tea party movement, which strengthens this revitalization of the conservative movement, Keene says.
“You’ve got a boiling ferment at the local level as people who’ve never been involved in politics before are saying, We’re scared,” Keene observes. "They say the country’s off track, something needs to be done, the government’s spending too much money, nobody’s listening to us. And they have become a movement on their own.”
As a result, “We’ve got a spontaneity that is most probably reminiscent of the way the movement developed in the late ’60s and early ’70s before the national victories that began the centralization of the movement in Washington,” Keene says.
While Sarah Palin has positioned herself as a spokesperson for grass-roots activists, she has so far declined to speak at CPAC.
“We’ve invited her, and she’s been unable to make it for the last three years,” Keene says. “She said last year she was going to make it and then wasn’t able to. This year she’s been on her book tour, and she’s got other things, and she did the so-called tea party convention, and I don’t know what she’s doing right now. But we’re hoping that she’ll be with us next time.”
As in the past, the ACU’s foundation, which actually runs CPAC, has priced tickets so students can buy them.
“The first CPAC was held in 1973,” Keene says. “It had about 125 people attending, and Ronald Reagan was the speaker.”
Reagan proved to be a loyal fan of CPAC, speaking at 17 of them. At one of the dinners, the president mentioned to Keene that he could talk to rich people and establishment Republicans any time.
“But,” Reagan said, “this is the only place that I can come to and talk to the people that got me to where I am today, the people who make up this movement. It’s the only place where they get together annually. It’s the only place they can afford to attend, because they’re not the rich people, they’re not the grandees.”
Reagan asked Keene to promise that he will never change CPAC so that it becomes impossible for those people to come.
“Keep the price low, make sure that you’re bringing in new people, and keep CPAC what it’s become and what it ought to always be,” Reagan said.
Given that half the attendees this year will be college students, CPAC has remained true to that request.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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