All Is Not Lost for Conservatives

Last Thursday I left Baltimore-Washington International Airport for Palm Beach, Fla., feeling depressed about the political changes about to sweep through the nation’s capital. At the time, I was still holding out hope that two conservatives seeking to lead House Republicans—Representatives Mike Pence (R.-Ind.) and John Shadegg (R.-Ariz.)—would emerge victorious in their races against two establishment candidates.

Those hopes were dashed Friday morning when both Pence and Shadegg were soundly defeated in their bids for minority leader and whip. As I sat in my hotel room watching Fox News and posting the latest results on the Right Angle, I was astonished that Republicans—having just taken a thumping a week earlier—were sticking with the same team that had led them back into the wilderness.

Maybe I failed to see it coming. But even still, the margins of their defeats—168 to 27 for Pence and 147 to 57 for Shadegg—left me questioning how two of the conservative movement’s brightest stars came up so short.

Fortunately, I many people to turn to for answers. The reason I was in Palm Beach was David Horowitz’s Restoration Weekend, an annual conference that brings together conservatives and libertarians from across America—and the globe—to share ideas, talk about challenges and offer hope for our future.

Having attended the previous Restoration Weekend in Phoenix, it was a real treat to be back so soon. As I wrote then, the weekend “recharged my batteries” for the long haul of the ’06 campaign. Now, with Election Day behind us, I needed a boost to grapple with depressing scenario of a Democrat-controlled Congress.

The lineup of speakers was spectacular. The mood was optimistic. And the event was a testament to how strong the conservative movement really is—and how dedicated its foot soldiers are.

It’s the Judiciary, Stupid

My first panel on Friday morning featured retired Judge Charles Pickering, talk-show host Mark Levin and law professor Jonathan Turley. The discussion centered on threats facing the Constitution. The two conservatives—Pickering and Levin—were motivational. They implored the audience to make sure the judiciary remained important to the political debate. After all, the gains Republicans made in the Senate in 2002 and 2004 have been largely attributed to the Democrats’ filibusters of President Bush’s nominees and the left-wing decisions on gay marriage and the Pledge of Allegiance.

(One note about this panel: Only at Restoration Weekend are audience members actually more notable than the panelists themselves. In the room observing were former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who mingled with attendees all weekend, and syndicated columnists and authors Ann Coulter and David Limbaugh.)

It was after this first panel that I realized the wrong people were at Restoration Weekend. The attendees didn’t need to be told how important judges were to the base; the person who should have been at that discussion was Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.), who shied away from a fight on judicial nominees in 2006, and as a result, took it off the table for conservatives to use in their campaigns. Republicans lost six seats in the Senate, and Frist bears much of the responsibility for not doing a better job of advancing a winning agenda.

DeLay in Denial

That brings me to my next observation from Restoration Weekend. It happened Saturday morning at breakfast. Tom DeLay, who has been a whipping boy of both the left and right since Election Day, was the keynote speaker, talking about why the GOP lost control of Congress.

Not surprisingly, DeLay didn’t attribute the losses to his own problems, but instead said Republicans had a communications problem. He apologized repeatedly for his role in this, acknowledging that he failed to communicate all the good things Republicans were doing in the 109th Congress.

I give DeLay credit for making the trip and spending time mingling with the masses at the conference, but I’m glad he was there as a former member of Congress and not the face of the party. As good a job as he did as whip and then leader, in terms of passing legislation, DeLay also had his shortcomings—communication being one of them. Rep. John Boehner (R.-Ohio), who beat Pence on Friday, is not perfect, but unlike DeLay, he’s able to deliver a message without serving as a distraction.

My point is this: Even if DeLay had realized one year ago he needed to refine the GOP’s message, he couldn’t be an effective communicator because of all the baggage that surrounded him.

Immigration Fight Awaits

Later that morning I watched two of conservative movement’s brightest minds on immigration reform—Representatives Tom Tancredo (R.-Colo.) and Steve King (R.-Iowa)—speak on the topic alongside Rep. Buck McKeon (R.-Calif.) and former Rep. Jack Quinn (R.-N.Y.).

While the panelists predicted President Bush would most likely get his amnesty wishes granted by the Democrat-controlled House, there are signs of hope. And of all places, it lies in the hands of Senate Republicans. A movement is already under way to filibuster legislation that has the look of Reid-Kennedy (or “McKennedy,” if you’re Tancredo).

Another important observation of the panel: Don’t let the liberal media tell you the House GOP’s tough immigration stance hurt Republicans on Election Day. Immigration hawks who were defeated—Representatives J.D. Hayworth (R.-Ariz.), John Hostetler (R.-Ind.) and Arizona’s Randy Graf—lost not because of their hard-line illegal immigration viewpoints. Instead, Democrats ran to their right on immigration (in the case of Hayworth and Hostetler) or Republicans inflicted wounds on themselves (as was the case with Graf, who had no support from retiring Rep. Jim Kolbe or the National Republican Congressional Committee). Meanwhile, in Arizona, voters passed three referenda that cracked down on illegal immigration, drawing significant support from Hispanics. (Read today’s piece by Mark Krikorian for more on this topic.)

Salute to the Troops

Saturday evening was the crown jewel of the weekend. Just as it was in Phoenix, the Salute to the Troops Dinner was incredibly inspiring. The stories of the soldiers honored were remarkable.

Emceed by John O’Neill, author of “Unfit for Command,” the event featured two men and one woman whose dedication to our country brought some in the audience to tears. The honorees included Leo Thorsness, winner of the Medal of Honor, who was a prisoner at the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam, spending six years in captivity. Marine 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano shot and killed two terrorists in Iraq and was subsequently charged with premeditated murder. The charges were later dismissed. Finally, Army Master Sgt. Juanita Milligan shared the story of her harrowing adventure in Iraq. Milligan left her children at home to serve her country, only to suffer life-changing wounds that kept her at Walter Reed Medical Center. Her story of sacrifice gave me a whole new appreciation for our military.

Looking Ahead

Spending the past few days outside the Beltway opened my eyes that all is not lost with the conservative movement. Yes, Republicans and conservatives will no doubt have challenging days ahead. But with principled leaders such as Tancredo and King fighting battles in Congress and heroes such as Thorsness, Pantano and Milligan displaying valor on the battlefield, I am quite certain better days are ahread for America.