America’s Future Foundation (AFF), a group geared towards ambitious young Washington conservatives like me, usually holds its monthly roundtable discussions at the Fund for American Studies on New Hampshire Avenue. At each meeting, a spread of wine, beer, chips, and guacamole makes a welcome appearance, and afterwards we head to a bar in Dupont Circle. The debate topics are always engaging, ranging from the high-minded (“The Iraq War: Stay the Course or Bring them Home?”) to the low-down (“Cross-Party Dating: The Pick-Ups, Perils and Pitfalls”). The spirited debate and feverish networking are irresistible. Plus, the guacamole really is good.
But at the October AFF meeting, I notice a perceptible shift in mood—due, of course, to the specter of the November elections. In the back of the room, between chip munching, legislative aides share the gallows humor with right-wing journalists about getting “murdered in Indiana. Three seats just gone.” Or even more violent hyperbole: “Pennsylvania hasn’t seen this much blood on the ground since Lee invaded.”
The negative vibe is pretty much summed up by the evening’s debate topic: “Do Republicans deserve to lose?”
That the answer is “Yes” is already implied. Now the race is on to explain why. Eventually, after all, the broader movement will settle on a narrative of what went wrong. Every conservative wants to be the one to write it.
The first panelist to speak this evening is Ryan Sager, author of The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians and the Battle to Control the Republican Party. Sager feels that the party has become too Southern and evangelical in character. That’s his narrative, at least. Unfortunately, like so many panelists before him, Sager feels compelled to begin at the beginning, with a recounting of the history of the American conservative movement—how conservatives after World War II were united on a few things but divided on many others, how William F. Buckley began “defenestrating” (his word) the kooks from the conservative coalition, how Frank Meyer devised a philosophical justification called fusionism to bring together conservatives and libertarians, and so forth. Sitting through this recitation is akin to having Aunt Gertrude’s wedding album thrown in your lap. You have to review the family history before you can roughhouse with your cousins in the backyard.
Then some fighting begins in earnest. Panelist Jonathan Collegio, a swell guy saddled with the un-swell role of spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, informs us lazy critics that “legislation is hard work, especially when we’ve had such a small majority in these years.” The crowd isn’t impressed. Someone behind me is quietly responding with a Bush impression: “It’s hard work.” Collegio goes on to paint a grim future: Speaker—Nancy Pelosi! House Ways and Means chairman—Charles Rangel! House Judiciary chairman—John Conyers! Oh my! Dave Weigel, a young editor from Reason magazine, and I mouth the words “talking points” to each other.
The discussion veers from domestic to foreign policy, although several of the panelists mention they are “putting the war to the side” because “we can have an argument about that” another time. No doubt. Sager, for his part, keeps the focus solidly at home and on the pocketbook: The GOP will lose the Western states from Montana down to Arizona if it doesn’t shape up and stop passing things like the prescription-drug entitlement. In short, fiscal conservatism equals good. Religious conservatism, which wants zealotry to be on the dole, equals bad.
Maybe. Then again, couldn’t someone just as easily confront Sager with the opposite argument? Didn’t Bush squander a lot of political capital precisely on fiscally conservative schemes such as privatization? Maybe he’d have pleased the base more if he’d spent even more and built some walls along the border and taken more action against gay marriage. At the end of the day, the arguments all seem to boil down to something similar: If it were more like me, the Republican Party would be better off. It’s failing because it’s like you.
I accost another panelist, Robert Bluey, who is editor of the website for Human Events. With a cherubic young face placed squarely above a collar that is buttoned down tight enough to show the outline of the tie underneath, Bluey looks exactly like his politics. For now, he’s keeping his chin up, but he admits that things look pretty bad. We joke about the raft of conservative legislative aides that will be looking for work this winter. Are there enough think tanks out there?
Soon, the night shifts to a Dupont Circle bar, and the wisecracks start. “Well, at least Kim Jong Il knocked Foley out of the news for an hour.” A little more acidly, I hazard a tasteless joke about the news of the day: “You know who is more disappointed than Yankee fans that it was Cory Lidle who flew into that building in New York?” Everyone knows the punchline already. It’s not funny because it’s true.
A bright-eyed young woman in a billowy white skirt is smiling at me a bit too hard. She’s a legislative aide for a GOP senator and is interrogating me.“So, do you have a girlfriend?” she asks. Perhaps she thinks it’ll be increasingly hard to find young conservatives in town after ’06.
This landscape is new for people in my generation. When Gingrich and friends promised to lay siege to an out-of-control Congress, I was watching cartoons after school and chasing girls with braces. Now, Pelosi and friends promise to lay siege to an out-of-control Congress, the braces are gone, and I’m being chased by a Senate aide. Times change. Even if I’ve lost confidence in my party to do anything I wanted them to do—reduce the size of the federal government rather than increase it, or just behave with a shred of decency—it’s daunting to think of the GOP losing its majority. Hadn’t people just recently been speaking of the conservative majority as a near-permanent realignment?
While I’m hardly sanguine about Democrats controlling the House or Senate, I can’t really say I’m that sorry to see the GOP get what it deserves, either. For people like me—and all the other young souls at AFF—the prospect of real opposition at least promises all the frights and thrills of growing up.
I make motions to leave, but I’m told that David Kirby, AFF’s executive director, is buying another round. I raise my glass to the Senate aide and try to come up with an optimistic toast: “You know, I moved down here just this summer with only my misguided idealism. Now I have gin, too. I think we’re all going to be just fine.” She smiles politely, but maybe she doesn’t need my good cheer just yet. Her boss, at least, is good until ’08.
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Michael Brendan Dougherty is a writer in Fairfax, Va.