Friday night at the Defending the American Dream summit I discovered a special kind of conservative, ones who are battered and bruised but remain unbowed. I saw real Republicans stripped of the pretense and illusion. They were angry, hardened and convicted to the proposition that the basic values on which our nation was founded shall not be allowed to perish at the hands of reckless government or sacrificed on the altar of greed and irresponsibility.
I saw these feral Republicans dining on rubber chicken and some sort of rice globules, crammed around hundreds of tables in an immense room at today’s keynote address at the summit, getting more sustenance from the meaty words of the speakers than they could find on the plates on the tables in front of them. Taken as a whole they’re an interesting group, skewing much, much younger than the GOP blue hairs who dominate the state parties, younger even than the Netroots Nation denizens who average in their mid-fifties. They were young and hungry and ready to be filled with ideas and inspiration.
The speaking schedule was full of substance. Introductions were handled by Americans For Prosperity board chairman David Koch, the man who bankrolled the Libertarian Party at the height of its success and whose support made my first paying political job after college a possibility. He didn’t say much, but his presence was inherently significant, reminding those of us with long memories that Americans for Prosperity is the inheritor of a legacy of support for individual liberty and free market capitalism which goes back almost three decades..
The first headliner was Reagan administration mainstay Ed Meese, surprising us all that he was still alive and offering some endearing memories of better days. He was followed by firebreathing Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who has earned a career rating of ‘libertarian’ from the Republican Liberty Caucus and was one of the 25 heroic Senators who voted “no” on the Bailout bill. Inhofe spent most of his time talking about the downfall of the global warming movement and talking about sensible energy policy, but he was very impassioned and well received.
The most riveting speaker of the night was columnist George Will who gave the keynote address. Will spoke magnificently, at least partly off the cuff, but presumably stringing together memorized bits of wisdom from past speeches adapted to his audience and the current times as he paced around the stage restlessly, conveying his frustration and anger at Congress and out of control government and the irresponsibility of the American people with enormous enthusiasm and conviction. Will hit many notes which clearly resonated with the audience and got them on their feet more than once.
He talked at length about the erosion of personal responsibility and the willingness of too many Americans to look for a handout from government instead of helping themselves, pointing out that “more and more Americans are dependent on a government which they are not paying for,” reminding us that while the top 50% of wage earners pay 97% of the taxes in America, the overwhelming majority of our tax money is spent for the 50% of the population which pays no tax at all. He talked about the fall of communism and fascism around the world and how in many ways with no outside enemies we have become our own worst enemies and drifted away from the values which we once shared. He made the fundamental point which I’ve stressed in some of my writing that our current economic woes are not the result of the failure of the free market as the left would try to convince you, but the inevitable outcome of an overly managed and controlled and dependent economy and of businesses which have lost fiscal discipline and become dependent on government for undeserved support. In his conclusion he said that “capitalism does not just make us better off, it makes us fundamentally better.”
Although he was angry and clearly dissatisfied with the current state of the world, Will’s speech was surprisingly inspiring and positive in its overall message. I suspect that like me, most of the audience of hungry and discontented Republicans appreciated his reminder that we still carry the potential for great things within us, and that the American Dream may have been tarnished, but can still be restored if we are willing to take personal responsibility for our futures.
After the dinner, as I headed out from the hotel I ran into George Will in the lobby and got a chance to shake his hand and thank him for his speech, which sent me off in a more positive frame of mind than I’ve been in for some weeks. My stomach was still rumbling for some real food, but my spirit was at least somewhat satisfied.