In living color and surround sound, straight from the ballroom of the Marriott in Washington, D.C., the production signaled either the coming world domination of the Republican Party or its crack-up.
At the largest Conservative Political Action Conference ever this past weekend, where attendance was up 20 percent (half were young people paying $25 instead of the standard $175 registration fee), you could see the pragmatists and purists in full flower.
A guy wearing a plastic sheet with an AK-47 on the back and too many "Don't Tread on Me" hats and T-shirts to count. Paraphernalia aplenty for whatever your beef against government might be. Folks in the exhibition hall pushing guns, abstinence, secession, tax protests and militias. The John Birchers, who labeled Dwight Eisenhower a communist, had a big booth.
On the agenda were all the stars of the political right — Dick Armey, Newt Gingrich, Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck, joined by conservatives from Congress, like Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. Most of the Republican presidential hopefuls for 2012 also were there. They needed the energy of the whooping crowd, but they also want to win.
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For Republicans, the path back to power requires that the coalition be enlarged. They may be the party of "no," but they aren't nihilists. Elections are won by putting the poles of your tent as far out as possible, even if it sags in the middle.
But for the CPAC crowd, ideological purity is the road to recovery. They'd like to limit membership to those willing to submit a strand of hair to prove their DNA is 100 percent conservative.
Inside the hall, a candidate for the Senate like Marco Rubio got a rousing but at times muted reception when he talked policy. A rising star, he appeals to insiders as a former speaker of the Florida House. Yet he also attracts outsiders who like his anti-government rhetoric and up-from-the-bootstraps origins as a Cuban-American.
He made his moderate opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist, a laughingstock for man-hugging Barack Obama when the president came to Fort Myers to push the stimulus bill. He also — unlike Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown —- warmly and publicly embraced the tea partiers.
When Rubio was throwing red meat, the crowd went wild. When he wasn't and touched on governing, the room grew quiet and restive. The crowd wanted tax cuts and nothing but tax cuts. He's still leading in the primary against Crist, but the ardor cooled when he said in a recent interview that he would have taken the stimulus money for his struggling state.
Looking at the agenda, you had to wonder what prime-time speakers like Fox News star Beck and presidential aspirant Mitt Romney have in common. The latter's hair never moves, the former's mouth never stops.
Beck refrained from barking during his speech, the most popular of the event. His trademark chalkboard got a standing ovation. He did make chomping sounds as he attacked the very thought of letting infidels into the fold.
Beck's idea, the prevailing one at the gathering, brooks no compromise or fair-weather friends like Romney, who tries to pass himself off as one of them by disavowing the beliefs he held as governor of Massachusetts.
To that point, Romney, considered by many pundits to be the leading contender in 2012, lost the convention's straw poll. It doesn't mean much as Romney, who won it last year, can tell you.
This year, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who ran in 2008 and is a hero of campus conservatives, won with 31 percent. If the movement could put together a candidate limb by limb, Paul would be it — all the way down to abolishing the Federal Reserve. Romney did come in second with 22 percent, while Sarah Palin was a distant third with 7 percent.
That paltry showing has to be a case of be-there-or-be-square for the reigning queen of the conservative movement. Palin turned down the invitation of CPAC, which doesn't pay its speakers, in favor of the National Tea Party Convention, which did.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, one of the more viable hopefuls for 2012, embodied the dilemma of trying to govern and be angry enough to appeal to the base of the party. The diminutive Pawlenty urged his audience to emulate Tiger Woods' wife: "We should take a page out of her playbook and take a 9-iron and smash the window out of big government in this country."
The comment came up later on "Meet the Press."
"With that kind of rallying cry," host David Gregory asked, "do you really expect people to take you seriously?" Pawlenty deflected his out-of-character moment, saying, "If we've gotten to the point where you can't make a joke, I think we're in trouble."
Beck, whose hourlong speech ended the conference, demonstrated the difference between this year and last when headliner Rush Limbaugh, in Johnny Cash garb, bounced his way through a speech devoted to gibes at the common enemy, Obama.
The common attack against Obama this year was about his teleprompter usage — by speakers using teleprompters. In his speech, Beck's enemy wasn't Obama but the GOP, which he likened to a newbie at Alcoholics Anonymous taking the first of the 12 steps. "Hello, my name is the Republican Party, and I got a problem. I'm addicted to spending and big government."
We know what happened in 2000 when Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, at heart a Democrat, saw no differences where there were many. Purity tests are for losers.