Energized Conservatives Pound on Democrats
WASHINGTON - A newly muscular "Tea Party" movement dominated an old-line conservative conclave Thursday, depicting Democrats as destroying America's freedoms and warning Republicans not to take their support for granted.
President Obama and congressional Democrats "are using this downturn as cover, not to fix America but to try to change America, to fundamentally re-define the role of government in our lives and the role of America in the world," Marco Rubio said in the opening address at the annual Conservative Policy Action Conference (CPAC). The rising conservative star, who is seeking the GOP Senate nomination in Florida, said, "The good news is it didn't take long for the American people to figure this out."
He called the November midterm elections "a referendum on our very identity as our nation."
Speaker after speaker at CPAC - a showcase for conservative causes since Richard Nixon was in the White House - ridiculed Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as misguided or worse. They said their grass-roots movement would rescue the nation in congressional elections that now seem likely to deliver significant Republican gains.
The convention, hosted by the American Conservative Union, includes both the small-government, anti-tax activists loosely organized in the past year under the Tea Party label and conservative groups of long standing that focus on issues from abortion to defense.
The ballroom at a convention hotel erupted in gasps and cheers when former vice president Dick Cheney unexpectedly appeared at the podium after his daughter Liz had delivered a blistering attack on the Obama administration's terrorism policy. He came as "arm candy" for her, he joked.
When a few in the crowd chanted, "Run, Cheney, Run!" Cheney replied, "Knock if off" and said he "wasn't a-gonna do it."
"There comes a time when those of us in our generation need to move on and make certain that the younger generation has an opportunity to step up," he said. He called the moment promising, saying Republican takeovers in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races in November and the Massachusetts Senate race in January were "enormously encouraging."
"The sky's the limit here," Cheney said. "I think 2010 is going to be a phenomenal year for the conservative cause, and I think Barack Obama is a one-term president."
The three-day conference features speeches by many potential GOP presidential contenders, although former Alaska governor Sarah Palin decided not to attend. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is scheduled to speak today, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich is to appear on Saturday.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who spoke Thursday, brought a surprise guest to introduce him: Scott Brown, whose upset victory in Massachusetts' Senate race helped upend Democratic hopes of pushing through a health care bill last month.
Romney said Obama and Democrats had "failed the American people" - he repeated some version of the word "fail" 13 times - and said "liberal neo-monarchists" would "kill the very spirit that has built the nation."
When CPAC convened a year ago, many conservatives were disheartened by Obama's inauguration and Democratic gains in the House of Representatives and Senate. Now, with the president's approval ratings down to about 50(PERCENT), his signature health care initiative stalled and Democrats on the defensive, the mood was energized, even exuberant - and scathing toward the White House.
"You're intellectually shallow; you're a romantic; you're self-indulgent," former House majority leader Dick Armey said of Obama, calling him "the most incompetent president perhaps in our lifetime."
In his speech, Armey also cautioned the Republican Party not to assume it automatically can claim Tea Party support.
In an example of the possible friction ahead, Rubio has mounted a strong challenge to the Republican establishment candidate for the Senate nomination in Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist.
"They must come to us and show us they are worthy of our loyalty," Armey told the party he once helped lead, mentioning concerns about Republicans' record on issues such as spending. He now heads an organization called FreedomWorks.
"When we help you win back that majority that you love so much," he said, "we will keep in mind your penchant for drinking backsliders' wine."