I'm Mad as Hell and I'm Not Going to Take It Anymore, and I'm Totally Diggin It

Conservative activists are not a happy group. They're angry with the GOP. They're disgusted with the 2008 presidential frontrunners. Dick Cheney, one of their heroes, is increasingly embattled. And they're mad as hell at illegal immigrants. You'd think this week's Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. would be a time for right wingers to enjoy each other's company and swap Nancy Pelosi limericks. Instead, the event turned into a festival of grief and self-loathing. But in a good way. Turns out unhappy conservatives are happy conservatives. So far, they seem to be taking perverse pleasure in their own displeasure.

"I don't know about you," Richard Viguerie, the legendary direct mailer, told the audience at one forum Thursday. "But I feel very angry and betrayed." This from the author of the book, "Conservatives Betrayed." Viguerie warned Republicans in the audience that they probably wouldn't enjoy his talk. He accused the GOP of "illegal corruption" thanks to Jack Abramoff and friends. And he accused the party of "legal corruption" by blowing the federal budget. "In many ways, conservatives are like the Biblical Jews who had to wander through the desert for 40 years," he explained, drawing some hope from his deep discontent. "In my opinion, conservatives are not going to get to the political Promised Land until we get new leaders." Just in case you were wondering, Viguerie wasn't impressed with the leaders on offer in 2008. "We should withhold support from all of the establishment Republican candidates and support true conservatives," he declared.

Another big name speaker, Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum won a standing ovation after her impassioned plea for the United States to remain an English-speaking nation. She sealed her case by...speaking in a foreign language. "The English language is what makes us E Pluribus Unum," she explained, before adding a translation: "Out of Many, One!" But a little Latin doesn't mean that Schlafly is ready for Latinos. "We can't afford to let Mexico turn us into a two-language nation," she said, before turning her sights out to sea. "There's another attack on the English language coming from statehood for Puerto Rico."

Kenneth Blackwell, the former Ohio secretary of state and one of the darlings of the GOP's 2004 convention, suggested he wasn't going to support any of the top tier in 2008. "A lot of the political operatives are saying, 'Get on board before the train leaves the station.' I reverse the tables," he said. "I'm sure there isn't a Republican candidate for president who can win without our support." Outside the ballroom, the discontent was plain to see. Citizens United distributed a 22-page booklet entitled, "He's No Ronald Reagan: Why Conservatives Should Not Vote for John McCain." It was snapped up almost as quickly as copies of the libertarian magazine Reason, which featured a cover story called, "Be Afraid of President McCain."

Small wonder that John McCain isn't scheduled to speak to the conference, which runs through Saturday. But several other candidates are, including Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. He might want to avoid running into one activist who was wandering the hallways in a dolphin's head and a T-shirt reading, "Flip Romney--Another Flip-Flopper from Massachusetts." At least he was demonstrating fiscal restraint by reviving a costume and slogan from 2004. But fans of Sam Brownback, the Kansas senator, distributed a flier pointing out that he was "A Conservative You Can Trust." That meant, among other things, that he was "proudly pro-life" and "a defender of traditional marriage." Fliers for Jim Gilmore, the former Virginia governor, were almost as vocal about his goal of "protecting our family values."

According to Karl Rove, Bush's emissary to conservatives, the movement is in a permanent state of discontent. But that itself can be a source of strength. Sadly for Rove, some of that strength comes from sticking it to Rove's boss. "We have to rise up and we have a good example of how to do that," said Schlafly. "When the conservative movement rose up and told George Bush he could not have Harriet Miers on the Supreme Court."

Several speakers have pointed out that even though things are bad, they're not as bad as they were in 1974, after Nixon quit. That defeat only paved the way for 1976 and 1980, and the greatness of Ronald Reagan--the only former president whose name is deemed worthy of adjective status to conservatives. There were plenty of Reagan conservatives in attendance at the conference. But there were few Bush conservatives to be found, either in size 41 or 43. One brave self-confessed Republican suggested a different approach Thursday morning. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Texas senator, spoke at a session bearing the question, 'What Happened to the Fight Against Big Government?' She didn't exactly wow her audience by praising as "successful" one the conservatives' great disappointments in the Bush era, the addition of prescription drug benefits to Medicare. But then, Senator Hutchison also pointed out something uncomfortable about the audience's hero. "I think what made Ronald Reagan different," she explained, "is that he was a happy warrior. We've got to remember that our message can be a happy message, a hopeful message."

The unhappy audience sat on its hands.

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