I had expected this year's 34th annual Conservative Political Action Conference to be a low-attendance dud. The conventional wisdom was that conservatives were a spent, divided force in American politics. Well, they are divided, to be sure. But, judging from CPAC, they aren't finished with us. I've been to many CPACs over the years, and this was the most heavily attended and, more significant, the most youthful, and amped-up since Ronald Reagan's day.
To understand why, I'd like to introduce you to the conservative—pro-life, anti-tax, pro-Mexican-fence, pro-"surge"—"director of campus activism" for the Georgia College Republicans. This Georgia Tech business major is worlds away from earlier waves of "CR's"—the Skull and Bones of the Reagan-built GOP, and hungry young men such as Ralph Reed and the late Lee Atwater.
First of all, she is a she: Ruth Malhotra, who just turned 23. Her parents were born in Calcutta and New Delhi. They emigrated to the United States so that he could teach. They converted from Hinduism to Christianity. Now Ruth—not a Hindi name, for sure—is a devout Southern Baptist and a member of the Rev. Charles Stanley's megachurch, one of the largest and most influential in the country.
Her '08 candidate? Mitt Romney! So here we have: an Indian Southern Baptist evangelical daughter of Hindus with a mixed Georgia-Delhi accent working hard for a Mormon Harvard-trained patrician whose faith she regards as a "cult"—her words—but who, in her mind, represents the GOP's best chance for keeping the White House in Republican hands. "I like his business mind set," she told me.
Is this a great country, or what?
Ms. Malhotra, who has her own business card with an elephant on it (!), was one of many straw poll voters who allowed Romney to squeak by with a victory—such as it was—of 21 percent support in the presidential straw poll CPAC always conducts. (Perhaps more tellingly, Rudy Giuliani came in second, at 17 percent.)
More important than the candidate Ruth voted for were the issues she said she cared about most. "Life" is number one: It remains the philosophical bedrock of the current GOP, even if the devotion to "life" is sometimes mocked by other aspects of the party's platform and performance. (The saga of Walter Reed and other military hospitals risks makes the party's commitment seem especially hypocritical.)
The child of legal immigrants—people who, as Bill Clinton used to say, "worked hard and played by the rules"—she favors construction of a fence across the southern border so fervently that she invited the Minutemen to speak at Georgia Tech last year. She has jousted with the school administration over free speech issues and has the other-side-of-the-Baby-Boom, CR gift for "campus agitation."
She rules out Rudy or Sen. John McCain (for now, anyway)—but seems to have settled on Romney as the closest thing to an acceptably doctrinaire conservative, even if his doctrines have changed 180 degrees in the last few years. As for Mormonism, she told me that she is less concerned with its theological teachings than the kind of tradition-minded families that seem so numerous among its adherents. "They've got some kind of wild teachings, I guess, but they are such decent people," she told me.
There were lots of Ruth Malhotras at CPAC—committed and yet hungry and practical. I saw a lot of people (and lots of young women, actually) when I went to Springfield the other week for Sen. Barack Obama's announcement.
A new generation is coming into politics. They not only welcome "multicultural" beings such as Ruth Malhotra, they are proud to be associated with (and even led) by them. At a time everything is digitally instant and ever-present, and the percentage of immigrants in America is at an all-time high, they think globally by nature. They sense the risks, but want a more hopeful picture than the one presented, say, in the movie "Babel." They have medleys of strongly-held views, and yet value expertise and managerial shrewdness.
As the conference drew to a close, I spoke to David Keene, CPAC's avuncular impresario and founding father. "I haven't seen a turnout like this since 1975," he said. That year, the Baby Boomer conservatives came of age as they got behind Reagan's challenge to President Gerald Ford for the GOP nomination.
One big difference: I covered Reagan, and I am not sure that I saw another Reagan at CPAC. I'm not sure Ruth Malhotra did either, but she was making the best of it.