Conservatives In D.C. Celebrate Comeback (Again) : It's All Politics ANALYSIS: Attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington this week are buoyed by signs of a rightward shift in the body politic. We've seen the same dynamic play out before: A movement sweeps a young Democrat promising cha...
NPR logo Conservatives In D.C. Celebrate Comeback (Again)

Conservatives In D.C. Celebrate Comeback (Again)

The Conservative Political Action Conference comes to Washington this week, holding the winter conference it has held annually since the 1970s in good times for conservatives and bad.

So which kind of times are we in now? When you look at the residents at 1600 Pennsylvania and the majorities in Congress, you would think the worst. But guess again. CPAC this year has moved to a bigger hotel and expects a record crowd.

A year ago the CPAC gathering was rather downbeat, stunned by the breadth and depth of the Democrats' national victories in 2008. But this year will be something else again. Conservatives are no longer prostrate in defeat. Quite the contrary: Their blood is up, stirred by both the actions and the troubles of the Obama administration.

Movement conservatives are also buoyed by signs of shifting political attitudes in the larger body politic. Polling results have trended to the right since mid-2009, and Republican Scott Brown's capture of the seat of Teddy Kennedy in Massachusetts is just the latest sign that 2010 election results will follow.

That is why the CPAC meeting here this week will find itself far from the voice crying in the wilderness it was a year ago (when the Obama birth certificate issue was among the salient matters discussed).

This year, in fact, the main burden for CPAC is not the setback of a devastating election, but the onset of a challenge from a new player in the world of conservative activism — the Tea Party — which held one of its first gatherings under the TEA (Taxed Enough Already) banner during last year's CPAC.

Today the Tea Partiers remain a nascent and amorphous band of anti-tax and anti-government activists. But they are also the media darlings of the new decade, and their recent meeting in Nashville, Tenn., starring Sarah Palin, set the bar a bit higher for this year's CPAC show.

That being said, CPAC's annual return to the capital still resonates as a rite of early spring. It recalls glory days from the heyday of Ronald Reagan and signifies a certain continuity for conservatism over generations.

Deja Vu?

It is also a reminder that the pendulum swings in our politics are highly regular. If those on the right are standing up to Washington right now, it is less a Second Revolution, as some Tea Partiers suggest, than it is a confirmation of a consistent pattern.

For a half-century, we have seen the same left-right dynamic play out. Multiterm Republican administrations give way to younger, less well-known Democrats promising change. It has happened four times at precise intervals of 16 years. And each time, the new Democratic president has met a wall of resistance and conservative resurgence as soon as he tried to deliver on his ideas of change.

Start with John F. Kennedy in 1960. Long before Obama broke the race barrier, Kennedy sent a shock through the body politic as the youngest president ever elected and the first Catholic. He said he would "get the country moving again," and his ascent met resistance not only from business interests but from active anti-communists and traditionalists of various kinds.

Kennedy tried to go slow on civil rights but had his hand forced in 1963 by violent resistance to that movement. He agonized over the commitment to Vietnam but feared scaling it back in the face of conservatives eager for the fight. Among these was Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater, who emerged from the Western conservative wing of the GOP to pull the party rightward. His new thrust helped Richard Nixon win the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972.

The next new Democratic face was Jimmy Carter, lifted to the White House in 1976 by Watergate and the disgrace of Nixon. Carter carried the South and considered himself a son of the soil. But when Carter came to office, the populist right came to life. Much of its ire in that era was prompted by the Panama Canal treaty, by desegregation of schools and by outrage over inflation-fueled increases in tax rates. But it all came down on Carter, and when interest rates spiked and recession followed, the election of Ronald Reagan happened.

Sixteen years after Carter's election came the young Bill Clinton, another Southern governor who fancied himself a voice of the people. His nominating convention dwelt heavily on the themes of change and "a town called Hope." In the White House, he took on the ban on gays in the military, gas taxes, gun laws and, most ambitiously, health care. His support in his home region went, well, south. Two years into his presidency, Republicans captured a majority of House seats, Senate seats and governorships in the South for the first time since Reconstruction. (They have held all three ever since.)

And, yes, it was exactly 16 years from Clinton's 1992 breakthrough to the 2008 election of President Obama, yet another young Democrat borne on promises of change and hope. This time, many Democrats believed, they had the wind at their back for keeps. They had the youth and the minority voters and a lock on tomorrow.

It may be that future elections bear this out. But for the moment, the realities of the present are reminding us of a dynamic we have seen repeatedly in the past.