Americas Future Foundation (AFF), a group geared towards ambitious young Washington conservatives like me, usually holds its monthly roundtable discussions at the Fund for American Studies on New Hampshire Avenue. At each meeting, a spread of wine, beer, chips, and guacamole makes a welcome appearance, and afterwards we head to a bar in Dupont Circle. The debate topics are always engaging, ranging from the high-minded (The Iraq War: Stay the Course or Bring them Home?) to the low-down (Cross-Party Dating: The Pick-Ups, Perils and Pitfalls). The spirited debate and feverish networking are irresistible. Plus, the guacamole really is good.
But at the October AFF meeting, I notice a perceptible shift in mooddue, of course, to the specter of the November elections. In the back of the room, between chip munching, legislative aides share the gallows humor with right-wing journalists about getting murdered in Indiana. Three seats just gone. Or even more violent hyperbole: Pennsylvania hasnt seen this much blood on the ground since Lee invaded.
The negative vibe is pretty much summed up by the evenings debate topic: Do Republicans deserve to lose?
That the answer is Yes is already implied.Now the race is on to explain why.Eventually, after all, the broader movement will settle on a narrative of what went wrong. Every conservative wants to be the one to write it.
The first panelist to speak this evening is Ryan Sager, author of The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians and the Battle to Control the Republican Party. Sager feels that the party has become too Southern and evangelical in character. Thats his narrative, at least. Unfortunately, like so many panelists before him, Sager feels compelled to begin at the beginning, with a recounting of the history of the American conservative movementhow conservatives after World War II were united on a few things but divided on many others, how William F. Buckley began defenestrating (his word) the kooks from the conservative coalition, how Frank Meyer devised a philosophical justification called fusionism to bring together conservatives and libertarians, and so forth. Sitting through this recitation is akin to having Aunt Gertrudes wedding album thrown in your lap. You have to review the family history before you can roughhouse with your cousins in the backyard.
Then some fighting begins in earnest. Panelist Jonathan Collegio, a swell guy saddled with the un-swell role of spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, informs us lazy critics that legislation is hard work, especially when weve had such a small majority in these years. The crowd isnt impressed. Someone behind me is quietly responding with a Bush impression: Its hard work. Collegio goes on to paint a grim future: SpeakerNancy Pelosi! House Ways and Means chairmanCharles Rangel! House Judiciary chairmanJohn Conyers! Oh my! Dave Weigel, a young editor from Reason magazine, and I mouth the words talking points to each other.
The discussion veers from domestic to foreign policy, although several of the panelists mention they are putting the war to the side because we can have an argument about that another time. No doubt. Sager, for his part, keeps the focus solidly at home and on the pocketbook: The GOP will lose the Western states from Montana down to Arizona if it doesnt shape up and stop passing things like the prescription-drug entitlement. In short, fiscal conservatism equals good. Religious conservatism, which wants zealotry to be on the dole, equals bad.
Maybe.Then again, couldnt someone just as easily confront Sager with the opposite argument?Didnt Bush squander a lot of political capital precisely on fiscally conservative schemes such as privatization? Maybe hed have pleased the base more if hed spent even more and built some walls along the border and taken more action against gay marriage. At the end of the day, the arguments all seem to boil down to something similar: If it were more like me, the Republican Party would be better off. Its failing because its like you.
I accost another panelist, Robert Bluey, who is editor of the website for Human Events. With a cherubic young face placed squarely above a collar that is buttoned down tight enough to show the outline of the tie underneath, Bluey looks exactly like his politics. For now, hes keeping his chin up, but he admits that things look pretty bad.We joke about the raft of conservative legislative aides that will be looking for work this winter. Are there enough think tanks out there?
Soon, the night shifts to a Dupont Circle bar, and the wisecracks start. Well, at least Kim Jong Il knocked Foley out of the news for an hour. A little more acidly, I hazard a tasteless joke about the news of the day: You know who is more disappointed than Yankee fans that it was Cory Lidle who flew into that building in New York? Everyone knows the punchline already. Its not funny because its true.
A bright-eyed young woman in a billowy white skirt is smiling at me a bit too hard. Shes a legislative aide for a GOP senator and is interrogating me.So, do you have a girlfriend? she asks. Perhaps she thinks itll be increasingly hard to find young conservatives in town after 06.
This landscape is new for people in my generation. When Gingrich and friends promised to lay siege to an out-of-control Congress, I was watching cartoons after school and chasing girls with braces. Now, Pelosi and friends promise to lay siege to an out-of-control Congress, the braces are gone, and Im being chased by a Senate aide. Times change.Even if Ive lost confidence in my party to do anything I wanted them to doreduce the size of the federal government rather than increase it, or just behave with a shred of decencyits daunting to think of the GOP losing its majority.Hadnt people just recently been speaking of the conservative majority as a near-permanent realignment?
While Im hardly sanguine about Democrats controlling the House or Senate, I cant really say Im that sorry to see the GOP get what it deserves, either.For people like meand all the other young souls at AFFthe prospect of real opposition at least promises all the frights and thrills of growing up.
I make motions to leave, but Im told that David Kirby, AFFs executive director, is buying another round. I raise my glass to the Senate aide and try to come up with an optimistic toast: You know, I moved down here just this summer with only my misguided idealism. Now I have gin, too. I think were all going to be just fine. She smiles politely, but maybe she doesnt need my good cheer just yet. Her boss, at least, is good until 08.