Arlington, VA (CNSNews.com) - The attitude of many conservative activists attending the 27th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in the shadow of the nation's capital seemed to be: conservatism is dead, long live conservatism.
To a man, the college students, grassroots organizers, think-tankers, writers and ordinary citizens who came together at the Crystal City Gateway Marriott to rub shoulders and plot the future of the movement are genuinely proud of conservatism's achievements: the election of presidents, the defeat of communism and the founding of influential institutions and publications. They have seen a movement that 50 years ago was marginalized, leaderless and unimportant push its way onto the national scene by dint of its ability to raise money, field candidates and advocate for its agenda.
And yet, many people at CPAC harbor ill-defined but very real fears that, as the 21st century dawns, conservatism has lost its way. They say the movement seems directionless and on the defensive at a time when its agenda is more ascendant than ever. At a political moment that ought to be conservatism's crowning glory, many of the people who have given their time, effort and money to the movement have begun to wonder: are we victims of our own success?
Often, the sentiment expresses itself as a longing for the good old days of the 1980s, when Reds were Reds and issues were clearer, and everyone manned the barricades out of a sense that conservatism, having elected a president, could ill afford to see the Reagan White House fail.
"Sometimes, I do miss the '80s, I miss Reagan," said Richard Brassard, a longtime grassroots activist who has worked in the movement for more thirty years. "We seemed to have more spirit then, and the leadership seemed more inclined to fight for what was important and not cut deals."
In fact, complaints about "the leadership" - meaning Republican leaders on Capitol Hill - were rife at CPAC. "They are so afraid of Clinton, so afraid of the Democrats, it makes me wonder if they're any use at all," said one conference attendee who didn't want to give her name. "They need to stand for something, but all they care about are their own jobs."
What becomes apparent in conversation after conversation is that many of the people at CPAC thought of themselves as conservatives first and Republicans only intermittently. More than a few expressed something like Nathan Schweiber's opinion that "someday it may become necessary to say to the Republicans, 'You don't stand for us any more.'"
At ground zero of that debate - are we Republicans or are we conservatives? - is Patrick J. Buchanan, late of both Crossfire and the Republican Party, who outlined in a speech on Friday his views on why true conservatives should vote Reform in the 2000 elections.
"Since Ronald Reagan returned to California a dozen years ago, his movement has been wandering in the desert," Buchanan told CPAC. "With no evil empire, with no Cold war to unite us, we have subdivided into quarrelsome factions. In twelve years our victories have been few, and even those have left us with ashes in our mouths."
Buchanan went on, "We ought to have a broader range of candidates than either the son of a US Senator from St. Alban's and Harvard or the son of a President from Andover and Yale."
Buchanan's words clearly resonated with many attendees - "At least he's got a clear agenda," said Cal Stephens of Clemson University - and yet just as many conservatives fear Buchanan's leap into the fractious third party could doom conservative chances at the ballot box.
"I like Pat a lot," said Ed Mercer, who quickly added that he doesn't agree with Buchanan on everything. "I just don't think he can be elected, and what happens if he helps to elect Al Gore instead?"
Cynthia Walsh seems the perfect symbol of conservative ambivalence about Pat Buchanan: "Every time I hear him speak, I think, 'He's right!' Then I think about it a few hours later and say, 'No, he's wrong.'"
About Republican frontrunner George W. Bush there was a range of opinions, from Daniel Kennelly's terse summation - "Resigned, but apprehensive" - to one attendee's dour response, "I'd rather vote for Gore; at least I know what I'm getting."
Bush, who will address the meeting on Saturday, remains a blank canvas for many conservatives, who fill in the details of his candidacy with their own desired agenda. Lindsey Hawkins of South Carolina said she liked Bush because he would "open up the party to different points of view on abortion." Mary Anne Hebert of Louisiana liked Bush for the opposite reason, saying that the Texas Governor was "clearly committed to the pro-life cause."
In the end, conservatives seem wrapped in ambivalence about the future, cautiously hopeful that their movement will continue to define the public agenda, yet fearful that they may be slipping back into the bad old days when conservatives occupied the margins of the political frontier. Which camp is right will be left to future CPAC meetings to decide.