“Okay here’s a joke,” said the kid walking behind me, in the $79 suit to his two companions. “Bill and Hillary get married and Bill says Hillary I want you to promise me one thing – never look under the bed. On their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary Hillary’s tempted and looks under the bed. There’s three beer bottles and two thousand five hundred in cash. Hillary goes to Bill and says ‘sorry Bill I just had to look – but what’s the deal?’ And Bill says, ‘Well everytime I cheated on you I drank a beer and put the bottle under the bed.’ And Hillary says” – the kid can barely maintain his mirth by now – “well three in 25 years that’s not so bad, but what’s the cash for?” And Bill says, “that’s what I got on the bottle returns.”

In that terrible terrible joke, almost an anti-joke, the sort of thing that sucks mirth out of the world, is the American conservative crisis in embryo. The teller was one of the several thousand attendees at CPAC – the Conservative Political Action Committee Conference 2008 – the gathering of all the great and good from the Right, or one part of it. Dubya had addresed the true believers yesterday – a 7am thing that people had camped out all night in a queue down the corridor of the Regency Ballroom of the grand old Omni hotel – and McCain had also made his pitch, to tepid applause, and actual booing when he started talking about illegal immigration. CPAC is the looked-forward-to event of the year for the hard Right, but the thing had had the stuffing knocked out of it on day one when Mitt Romney – the “polystyrene shell in a human-shaped space” according to Jon Stewart, the “man who looks like he just dropped a tooth-whitening strip” according to Dave Letterman – announced that he was dropping out of the race, not because it was an embarrassing and sqaulid farce, but because to continue would “help our enemies”.

You could pretty much feel the deflation after the Mitt hit the fan. He was a pretty piss-poor conservative record-wise anyway, but he was all they had, the only guy willing to kiss the helmet however many times it took – “we should double the size of Guantanamo Bay!” “Europe has a declining birth rate because they have lost faith in the Creator” – the only one who reassured them that nothing, really, had changed.

There’s nothing remotely like CPAC on the Australian scene – a creature of the Political Action Committees formed decades ago to bypass campagin funding laws, and responsible for the most vicious of the attack ads. They’ve largely been bypassed now, due to a campaign finance law they truly loathe and whose name – McCain/Feingold – suggests in two words the problems the Republicans are heading into. But they continue to fulfil their role as a focus for highly specific politicial formations, in a manner that’s a huge headache for the National Committee of the party – a three-day political bacchanal that reinforces the sense of political seperation and balkanisation.

You can get the tenor of the thing from the session titles – “What Do Liberals Have Planned For Your Money?” “Is the GOP Still Lost?” “Hugo Chavez Democrats – How They Silence The Right” – but the point of CPAC is not that it’s a merely a gabfest, but that it’s a gathering of the tribe, not a million miles different from a Star Trek convention. So there’s a uniform, especially among the kids who make up about 40 per cent of it. Boys wear dark-blue or grey suits, ties patterned like an Axminster carpet, and hang in packs either alpha – Romney clones and the occasional marine buzz cuts – or, erm, omega, tending to pale weediness, acned obesity and an armful of Ann Coulter books. The girls are all in pearls, Oaks Day dresses and levels of make-up that would have a Russian cosmonaut’s wife suggesting they go easy on the blue eye-shadow.

The outfit’s a costume of course – back at Penobscot University they’ll all be in stand-issue mallwear – but for now they’re making a point. They’re also scarfing around for the internship, research etc positions with representatives, Senators, thinktanks etc that will come up in their thousands – or hundreds, if the polls are any guide. With the right poised to most likely lose their control of Congress and the White House in a massive repudiation of their whole program, you would think there’d be a degree of soul-searching, or at least tactical discussions of the upcoming struggle. But you gotta look and listen long and hard to find any of that. When not cracking their funny funny jokes, the deep Red-staters (confusing, isn’t it) talk in the private language of their sect.

Ask a question about welfare in the bar, where you think people might unwind a little, and you get “hey, newsflash to the ghetto: the government is not your baby-father!” as Chad (not his real name, but he looked like a Chad) told me. “All universal health care is a single-payer system: the tax-payer” “Liberals don’t doubt God – they think they are God” and on it goes. Older delegates will give you a more rational conspectus, but the kids are hopped up on the sort of Mark Steyn/Ann Coulter etc rhetoric that seems to act as a prophylactic against thinking. Indeed both speakers were here too, feeding the furnace, and Coulter was in the exhibition hall – a one-stop megamall of sub-causes, from the demographic death of Europe to Mormon homeschooling – signing copies of her new book If Democrats Had Any Brains They’d Be Republicans – her queue only diminished by that for Newt Gingrich on his comeback tour.

Nevertheless it was the Newt who put a crimp in the love-fest, by giving a firebreathing speech pointing out what was obvious to all those abstaining from the Kool-aid – that the Republicans were in deep trouble, as judged by the roll-out for Super Tuesday votes – 15 million Democrats, versus 8 million Republicans – the 30 or so GOP Congressional reps quitting this time round, the 0 for 6 result in the 2006 Senate race etc. “There is something happening in this country and we don’t understand it,” Gingrich intoned “and we are not even close to ready to fight the 2008 race.” The pain on the crowd’s faces was visible, but it was more bewildered than anything, like Ralph McTell had just told the pub he wouldn’t be playing Streets of London that night. What? Us? Out of step with the nation? We are the nation? Does not compute.

For the press, it was like the thing had suddenly got interesting for the first time since Huckabee’s entourage had followed their candidate in, all denim and gingham and the smell of banjos, to the naked horror of the assembled. Debate? Discussion? The conference was actually … conferring.

Fortunately for the crowd, Newt’s solution to the problem was a program he had written based on “electronic town hall consultations with 45,000 respondents” and was thus “the program of the American people.”

“Eighty five per cent of Americans want us to defeat our enemies,” Gingrich intoned. “We just have to explain to them that if we dont fight them over here, we’ll be fighting them over here.” So the wormhole to reality closed, and we were in the bubble again. The trouble wasn’t a decisive shift in the attitudes of the American public – it was just bad PR.

If that reassured the crowd for a while, they were in for a rude shock that evening, as the results of the primaries came in – as was their nemesis, Hillary. Obama stormed home in Washington and Nebraska, polling in the high sixties in states where a black person is either lost or the Black Eyed Peas touring, and – in Washington – a high Hispanic population presumed to be going for Hillary. Obama got 57% to 36% in Louisiana, further evidence that he can take enough of the white south to get over the line. And then Hillary’s last line of defense fell, with today’s Maine caucus returning an Obama vote by about 58% to 40%.

The stunning set of results confirm that Obama could win anywhere, which will tend to snowball his results in future primaries. And he has now pulled ahead of Hillary by about a dozen delegates, crossing the thousand mark for the first time.

This was bad news for the GOP – they reckon they’ll do better against Hillary – but the real kicker was the turn out for their primaries. Part of this is due to the fact that McCain is now the presumed front-runner, but even so, the figures are dismal. Barely 15,000 people in the entire state of Kansas turned out, thus giving Huckabee a huge victory in thet state, 60% to 24%. Washington was a Tasmanian beauty contest – no-one won, with the “other” vote – votes going to withdrawn candidates, pipping McCain for top spot on about 26%. Short of a Chibnese burn on his old war wound, its hard to think of a bigger vote of no-con from the cons. The result – two states lost to Huckabee (tho no-one gets the Louisiana delegates) and one phyrric victory, should have Red staters pissing razor blades.

You wouldnt know it in the exhibition hall of CPAC, as the conference closed. One of the last stalls to pack up, was the “stophernow.com” group, which does a profitable sideline in Hillary hate novelties. There most popular item – an inflatable Hillary punching figure. “A fun way to beat Hillary!” says the ad. The only thing funny about it is that no-one seems to have noticed that, when knocked down, the thing just bobs back up again.

Peter Fray

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