“I define conservatism by four fundamental definitions” … The speaker at CPAC — the US conservative movement’s grand shinddig — was really wowing them with his firm grasp of ideas, his inspiring fortitude, his outstanding leadership qualities.

Presidential material? Well not until 2032 at least, for featured speaker Jonathan Krohn is 13 years old. Dressed in the regulation blue suit, white shirt, red tie that makes young neocons look like a walking legal document, peeping over the lectern, Krohn’s speech to the faithful in his reedy tween voice was a highlight of the three day event — which tells you better than anything what a terrible state American conservatism is in.

When your movement is being led by a 13-year-old child, the morbidly obese recovering benzodiazepine addict radio star Rush Limbaugh, and a mystical simpleton like Joe the Plumber, then you’re at the point medieval Europe reached around the time of the children’s crusade. Can a talking dog with a Blackberry be far behind?

Last year’s CPAC was a blast, a convention in which around 30 per cent of the sessions were devoted to an obsessive focus on Hillary Clinton, partly because the program had been got together before the rise of St. Obama, but also because they just really, really hate Clinton. The only rational session that time was the first half of Newt Gingrich’s address, in which he read the riot act to the faithful, spelling out the way in which conservatism had lost touch with the mainstream — before asserting that this could be remedied by a variety of rhetorical strategies he had developed with a neurolinguistics expert.

This year, reality didn’t get a look-in. Your correspondent was sorely tempted to hop over the pond, for sessions on how Al Franken is destroying the American electoral system (speaker: Hans Von Spakovsky), the “Youth for Western Civilisation” evening reception, or Karl Rove’s restricted reception for “selected students”, during which they are invited to step through this door, into this cave …

In the end most of it got played across the global media anyway, especially Rush Limbaugh’s alarmingly rambunctious address, in which he reiterated his desire to see “Obama fail”, because “Obama wants the country to fail”, while also showing his knowledge of the country he loves by putting “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the preamble to the Constitution, not the Declaration of Independence. For Limbaugh, Obama was Lenin. For Mike Huckabee, the Recovery Act, just passed with Republican help, was something “Stalin would be proud of”. And on it went …

There seems every indication that the American right have talked themselves into believing this guff, which is bad news for them. ARRA, the Recovery Act, raises US federal non-defense spending to its highest levels ever, but it is still only about 25% higher than the previous highest point, and there has been no real structural change in the economy — nothing which remotely compares to FDR’s creation of a plethora of federal authorities ab nihilo in the 1930s.

Americans who don’t need the assistance aren’t going to notice any change in their lives, but to hear the GOP, you would imagine that ration cards and forced labour were just around the corner. Those who do benefit from the assistance will notice an economy that has been slumping since the middle of last year, suddenly start to have jobs again, more money for essentials, a tax credit, improved health service delivery.

For moderate and rational Republicans — and there are precious few remaining — this has to be a worry. Even if the stimulus package fails at a macro level, tens of millions will have had some individual relief, and many will be the hard-pressed middle class swinging voters.

As long as Obama can sell a story about what’s going on in the way that Keating used to be able to (“Yeah well of course I knocked over the candle and set fire to the house. Of course I did. How else would the vital process of rebuilding commence? Anyone who thinks otherwise is an enormous fool, they’re an enormous fool.”), then any sort of result from the stimulus package, good or bad, can be sold as part of the process of recovering from the torpor of the last eight years.

For rational and moderate Republicans this is a nightmare, and I suspect that’s why so many are retreating into fantasy. For what comes at the end of the first stage of this process is the 2010 election, which everyone has forgotten about, but which will be as important as the 2008 one was.

For Democrat strategists, regaining power was always a two-stage operation — the Presidency in 2008, and the Senate in 2010. With 51 Senators (49 plus two independents) up to 08, the Dems had counted on only four to five gains last time round. The financial collapse and the Republican wig-out gave them a boost which took them to 58, and 59 if Al Franken defeats legal challenges to his majority in Minnesota. That was so tantalisingly close to the filibuster proof 60 margin that people forgot that team Obama had never counted on getting that straight away.

In 2010, that’s all up for grabs, with another 35 Senate seats (33, the normal one third tranche, plus two specials to replace appointees to replace Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden), on the rack. None of the 17 Democrat seats are currently unquestionably in the toss up category, and only two — Colorado and Illinois — are wobbly. By contrast five republican seats are toss-ups — Ohio, Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire and Kentucky — with a couple more possibilities in Louisiana and Pennsylvania.

All five strong possibilities are retiring senators, which is itself a vote of no-confidence in the movement. If the Democrats take four of the five toss ups, and one of the others, then they could lose one of their own, and still maintain a filibuster proof majority. Should that occur, then the two years before 2012 would comprise one of the greatest flurries of legislative change in US history, with the possibility of a couple of Supreme Court changes to boot — especially as the 2012 Senate race has about 25 Democrat Senators up for grabs, compared to a half dozen Republicans.

And of course, the key word is “should” — it relies both on the economy not getting worse, and on an absence of foreign policy or domestic security disasters. But even these such events would need to be capitalised on by a credible leader, and that’s exactly what the right are searching for, among the wise children and holy fools.

Surely it is only a matter of time before photographs of Ronald Reagan cry tears of real blood …

Peter Fray

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