Conservatism’s sunny face is long departed

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The conventional wisdom over the last 30 years or so is that part of the reason President Ronald Reagan enjoyed so much success on the national stage is he gave conservatism a genial face and a sunny veneer – no longer was it the pinched, sour creed of Barry Goldwater, who scolded that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”


If last week’s meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee is any signal, Reagan’s inheritors no longer believe it’s “Morning in America,” to use the phrase from a television commercial deployed in the Gipper’s landslide 1984 re-election campaign. It’s the deepest, darkest midnight, and it’s time to pull the blankets up tight, or maybe even hide under the bed.


Take, for instance, the speech that National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre delivered to the faithful at the meeting. Since the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn. in December 2012, LaPierre has again and again tub-thumped the notion that the way to prevent gun violence is for everyone to, counterintuitively, arm themselves to the teeth. Judging by one portion of LaPierre’s speech, he no longer believes all the assault rifles we can stockpile will do the trick.


We might need to graduate to rocket launchers instead.


“In this uncertain world, surrounded by lies and corruption everywhere you look, there is no greater freedom than the right to survive and protect our families with all the rifles, shotguns and handguns we want,” LaPierre declared. “We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists and there are home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers, knockout-gamers and rapers and haters and campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse our society that sustains us all.”


Wow. LaPierre might want to broaden his entertainment horizons and watch movies other than “Escape From New York” or “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” sometime.


When LaPierre wasn’t trying to scare the bejesus out of everyone, or former Alaska governor Sarah Palin wasn’t indulging in her patented sneering schtick – Charles Pierce of Esquire magazine called her CPAC speech a “puerile screed” – Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was arguing that the GOP’s recent lack of success in presidential elections was not because the public looked at what was offered and said no thanks, just as they once did for Democrats like George McGovern and Walter Mondale, but that Republicans weren’t being sufficiently conservative.


“If you want to lose elections, stand for nothing,” he said.


But where is the broad-based, 50-state electorate that’s hungering for what the GOP has to offer nowadays? A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that millennials who are coming of age and becoming politically active prize diversity, are liberal on social issues and believe government should take a more expansive role in taking care of its citizens. Continuing to demonize the poor, stand in the way of immigration reform, vilify gays and lesbians and argue that each and every problem can be solved through a tax cut is a sure-fire way to keep coming up short in the Electoral College.


Successful 20th century Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower were able to convey a positive message that we’re all in this together.


For all too many of today’s GOP luminaries, the message is all against all.


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