Saturday, February 20, 2010

Here Were the Brave: CPAC 2010

Reagan had a close relationship with the Conservative Political Action Conference, speaking at its launch in 1973, and returning many times, including during his presidency. There, he energised, inspired and directed the conservative movement, and articulated the rhetorical themes which would define him. CPAC 2010 is ongoing in Washington D.C., and so it is worth asking how Reagan is in attendance this year.

Mickey Edwards, former Oklahoma Congressman and chair of CPAC in its early years, has this year distanced himself from the event - "Why I'm Not at CPAC". Edwards seems to have spent the last few years bewailing the development of modern American conservatism, whether represented by the imperialism of Dick Cheney or the demagoguery of Glenn Beck (both of whom appear at this year's conference, Cheney in an unscheduled address, and Beck as the keynote speaker). Edwards aligns his conservative identity with that of Ronald Reagan, and against the agendas of both Bush and the Tea Party. For Edwards, contemporary conservatives represent a regal presidency and the suppression of civil liberties in the name of security and moral authority. On this basis, "Ronald Reagan would not have been welcome at today's CPAC...but he would not have wanted to be there, either". Goldwater, maybe, but I'm not so sure about Reagan, who never argued for a weakened executive and would, I expect, have been willing to concede to his military and intellegence advisors on post 9/11 security issues.

The central point here, though, is torture, and the queasy adoption of waterboarding as a rallying cry for the right. The Reagan Administration's stance on torture (CIA manuals for Central American allies notwithstanding) has been heralded by its opponents, such as Andrew Sullivan. Most recently, Seth MacFarlane has annoyed Newsbusters by claiming Reagan would have had Dick Cheney tried for war crimes. MacFarlane may have been reading Sullivan, or the continuing efforts by Will Bunch to reclaim Reagan as a moderate and humanitarian.

If the centre, or the left, or cranky Goldwater conservatives are seeking to weaken the right's hold on Reagan's image, their success does not seem evident at CPAC and its "Reagan Banquet". Browsing the speeches so far, the most noticeable echo is not of Reagan in 1980, much less of Reagan 1981-9, but of Reagan in 1964. Marco Rubio, an insurgent conservative contender in the primaries for the Florida senate seat, might be breaking Reagan's 11th Commandment and speaking ill of other Republicans, but his successful speech on Thursday recalled Reagan's declaration of a "time for choosing".

Rubio: You see, 2010 is not just a choice between Republicans and Democrats. It's not just a choice between liberals and conservatives. 2010 is a referendum on the very identity of our nation.

Reagan: You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I'd like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There's only an up or down: [up] man's old -- old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism.

In his rhetoric of the sixties and seventies, Reagan consistently defined politics in terms of a stark choice - to succumb to the revolution of the Great Society and its creeping eradication of American freedom, or to rediscover American destiny in conservative principles. Rubio, a descendent of Cuban exiles, gave full voice to the the exceptionalism of American destiny, individual and national, and decried the efforts of the Democratic leadership to deny it - "Do we want to continue to be exceptional, or are we prepared to become like everybody else?" Congressman Tom Price also identified this choice - "One that if we let pass – just might bring to bear Ronald Reagan’s warning that one day we would look back and talk about an America when men were once free."

Apocalyptic warnings are easier in opposition, particularly one whose ambitions are fiercely held but distant in realisation. Reagan's jeremaiads softened as he and conservatism became mainstream. At CPAC in 1981, in one of the first major speeches of his presidency, Reagan recalled his entry to the political stage seventeen years before:

We’ve come to a turning point. We have a decision to make. Will we continue with yesterday’s agenda and yesterday’s failures, or will we reassert our ideals and our standards, will we reaffirm our faith, and renew our purpose? This is a time for choosing.
Implicitly, the choice had been made, and the new president was steeling his supporters for the work ahead. Who knew the same choice would be on the table thirty years later, still unmade?

If we carry the day and turn the tide, we can hope that as long as men speak of freedom and those who have protected it, they will remember us, and they will say, “Here were the brave and here their place of honor.”

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