“How many of you,” Scott Rasmussen asked the crowd at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, “have ever mocked or made fun of the president’s call for hope and change? Raise your hands.”
Most people in the Marriott Wardman Park ballroom raised their hands. There were cheers and whoops.
“With all due respect,” the conservative pollster and commentator told them, “I’d like to say that’s really stupid.”
This time, there was uncomfortable laughter. “Voters are looking for hope and change as much today as they were in 2008,” Rasmussen explained, and “you ought to be encouraging Republican candidates, people you support, to offer that positive step forward.”
Rasmussen had put his finger on a major problem for the GOP in 2012, and conservatives in particular: At a time the national mood has begun to improve, they remain what Spiro Agnew called the nattering nabobs of negativism. At CPAC last week, any hint of a “positive step” was buried in vitriol, directed at each other and, mostly, President Obama.
This worked well for Republicans in 2010 because it matched the sour mood of the electorate. But now, with optimism and confidence finally on the rise, Republicans are left with an anger management problem. They risk leaving the impression they are rooting against an economic recovery.
Take, for example, the speech to CPAC by Mitch McConnell, who as the Senate Republican leader is one of his party’s most important, and adult, voices.
Among McConnell’s criticisms of the Obama administration: it “made an art form out of the orchestrated attack”; it will “go after anybody or any organization they think is standing in their way”; it “release[s] the liberal thugs” on opponents; it “used the resources of the government itself to intimidate or silence those who question or oppose it”; it engages in “attacking private citizens or groups for the supposed crime of turning a profit”; it takes it on itself to “dig through other people’s tax returns”; and it has no higher priority “than picking on Fox News.”
The unrelenting anger in the ballroom was an extension of what’s been happening on the campaign trail. In the week preceding the Florida Republican primary, 92 percent of the political ads were negative, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. There was only one positive ad for Mitt Romney — and it was in Spanish.
The dour message has contributed to low turnout and an enthusiasm gap among GOP voters — a worrisome development that The Washington Times’ Ralph Hallow tried to warn the CPAC participants about. “I hate to say this at a Conservative Political Action Conference, but none of these things I see are particularly good,” he said during one of the conference panels. “Intensity and enthusiasm about voting is now with the Democrats.”
On the same CPAC panel, conservative activist Ralph Reed argued that “it isn’t going to be enough to be anti-Obama. … We have to have a forward-leaning, positive conservative reform agenda.”
But at the moment, the message remains backward-looking and negative. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, used his speech to claim that a “totalitarian state [is] descending upon us,” and to assert the existence of the administration’s “Stasi troops” — a reference to the East German secret police.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., asserted that “our country has never been in as much trouble as we’re in today and I’m not exaggerating.” House Speaker John Boehner recalled his defiant stand against Obamacare on the House floor: “You all remember what I said? Hell no, you can’t!” And former presidential candidate Herman Cain argued that “stupid people are ruining America.”
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., even dismissed the significance of the death of Osama bin Laden, the fall of Moammar Gaddafi and the birth of the Arab Spring. They are “tactical successes that don’t begin with the mess that Barack Obama has created,” she said.
In another CPAC panel, conservative commentators were asked to respond to the argument made by conservative columnist David Brooks that Romney needs “to actually have some big policies” rather than “cruising on a bad economy.”
“I haven’t the foggiest idea what he was talking about,” Cal Thomas replied.
Roger Hedgecock agreed. “We know that this economy is not recovering,” he said.
McConnell was similarly grim. The most recent jobs report “happened in spite of the president’s policies, not because of them,” he told the CPAC gathering. “It’s the Obama economy now. And we’re not going to let people forget it.”
That’s not exactly the “positive step” Republicans will need to win in November.
You can bet Obama hopes his opponents keep on nattering.
Dana Milbank’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.