This past week's Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington D.C. was supposed to mark the beginning of the reemergence of the conservative movement. Attracting a record setting crowd of individuals, the event took on a decidedly urgent tone: don't write the GOP obituary just yet.
But behind the defiant veneer and talk of a conservative Renaissance stood a more difficult truth: the conservative movement and the Republican Party are in deep disarray -- in search of galvanizing figure, clinging to traditional ideas, in favor of tactical combat over policy debate, and intensely concerned about the future.
"We're fast becoming a regional party instead of a national one," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "There's a name for a regional party. It's called a minority party. Being in the minority might be okay if you're in a college debating society... But I assure you: it's not good for America when we're the minority, and none of us should be content to stay there."
Indeed, little seemed to unite the CPAC crowd beyond opposition to President Obama and a commitment to vaguely worded political principles. The conference's presidential straw poll, one of the earliest indications of the pulse of the conservative movement, provided a third-straight win for Mitt Romney. But doubts about the former Massachusetts's governor persisted, even as CPAC's lead organizer, David Keene, affectionately declared him "one of the family."
"Do we want a CEO who laid off thousands of workers" at the top of our ticket? one attendee asked. Added Craig Shirley, a longtime Republican strategist and head of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs: "If he is a member of the family, it is through adoption and not birthright."
In the end, the numbers underscored the softness of Romney's 'frontrunner' status. The former Massachusetts Governor won only 20 percent of the CPAC vote; four other individuals -- Bobby Jindal, Ron Paul, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich -- earned ten percent or more. And all were overshadowed by Rush Limbaugh.
The boisterous talk show host was the belle of the CPAC ball, earning the unofficial title of GOP spiritual leader following a winding and brash 90-minute speech. But his appearance, while loved in the ballroom, only exacerbated the intra-party fissures. As the crowd ate up Limbaugh's red meat, other Republicans watched in horror; the figurehead of their movement -- a rambling, sweaty and at times angry man -- was calling once again for the intensely popular president to fail.
"If we don't modernize conservatism, we are going to have a party of 25 percent of the vote going to Limbaugh rallies, joining every applause line, ripping the furniture up, we're going to be in permanent minority status," said Mike Murphy, a longtime Republican strategist, declared the next day on Meet The Press.
Democrats, more gleeful than mournful, felt the same way. "I actually think that if they follow Rush they have a chance of extinguishing their party and they'll have to start over with a more moderate party," former DNC Chair Howard Dean told the Huffington Post.
That Dean and Murphy would hit the same note shouldn't be understated. There are, they argue, few more important moments of political introspection than that currently facing the GOP. Out of power in both Congress and the Oval Office the party is torn over what constitutes the best path back: take a fresh approach or revert to what worked once before? Adopt new policy ideas or fine-tune political tactics? Tap into the fresh talent or turn to the veterans?
Asked to make a choice, the CPAC crowd by and large went with the past over the future, the quick fix rather than the long haul. Newt Gingrich, one decade after an ignoble exit from Congress, walked through a wild CPAC crowd to the tune of Eye of the Tiger before delivering his speech. His face would adorn the cover of New York Times Magazine a few days later.
Meanwhile, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough was largely ignored when he implored conservatives "to be moderate" in their temperament. "We are not going to win votes, we are not going to win elections, by calling Barack Obama a communist," he declared.
Hours before, Cliff Kinkaid, head of a conservative group Accuracy in Media, had made just such a suggestion. Minutes later, out in the halls, few would argue that Obama was anything less than the rebirth of Karl Marx. "He is a fascist, socialist, and a Marxist," said Pat, a female attendee from Philadelphia. "He is well beyond European style socialism. I'm not going to sugar coat it."
Even Tucker Carlson, in the process of urging conservative journalists to be more accurate in their approach, was booed when he complimented the New York Times for its reportorial standards.
The message seemed clear: in this, the era of Obama-proclaimed post-partisanship, the GOP was not at all interested in losing its traditional foes. The New York Times would remain a liberal rag and the President, a socialist. Rarely, it seems, would blame be laid at the Republican Party's doorstep. And on the occasion that the GOP did deserve rebuke, it was only because its leaders had faulted on their principles and commitments.
"We keep hearing that Republicans have to come up with new ideas and that we have to use new technology to take those ideas to voters who haven't been coming our way lately," said Rep. Mike Pence, during his Thursday speech at CPAC. "Yes, we need to offer positive alternatives. Yes, we need to take our message to every community in America. But more than anything else, we need to be willing to fight."