- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2009

Conservatives expect their largest turnout ever for the Conservative Political Action Conference this week, despite the Republicans’ recent electoral batterings, the economic free fall that began under a Republican administration and only one Republican senator’s having scored a perfect 100 in the American Conservative Union’s just-released ratings.

Voters didn’t reject conservatism - they just said “no, you can’t” to the Republican Party after it had failed to walk the conservatism it had talked, ACU Chairman David A. Keene said this week.

“Republicans lost their credibility as the party of the center-right when they became specialists in earmarks and the Bush White House presided over huge increases in discretionary spending,” he added.

To buttress his point, he said CPAC is expected to draw nearly 9,000 activists and college students from across the country, up from the record 7,000 who attended last year, when the main attractions were personal appearances by President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the four remaining Republican presidential nomination hopefuls - former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

This year, the star attraction, Rush Limbaugh, has as his only full-time quest the pursuit of Arbitron ratings. Yet the conservative movement’s troops are converging on the Potomac anyway.

Why liberals don’t hold a similar gathering or even refer to themselves as a movement is open to speculation, both hostile and friendly.

“We don’t need the safety of numbers to feel secure in our ideology,” Richard Greene, the liberal host of “Hollywood Clout” on Air America Radio, told The Washington Times. “Conservatism is such an outdated and dysfunctional political philosophy these days, it requires reinforcement by masses of people, either in person or via wackjob talk radio.”

But for Mr. Keene, it’s Republican officeholders in Washington who were once largely dysfunctional and who somehow will have to win back the trust of voters.

“In calling President Obama’s $787 billion plan a ‘spending’ rather than a ‘stimulus’ package, the Republican Party finally is showing signs of doing a better job of formulating its message,” Mr. Keene told reporters at the National Press Club on Tuesday.

Republicans’ 2008 voting record on Capitol Hill was dismal from the right’s perspective. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina was the only Republican to rack up a perfect ACU score last year. In 2007, perfect ACU scores went to Mr. DeMint and four other senators, all Republicans - Jon Kyl of Arizona, James M. Inhofe and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and John Barrasso of Wyoming.

The problem for Republicans last year was that Congress took up big-spending bills, derided by many conservatives as socialism for the rich, on farm subsidies and bank bailouts. The bailout had the full support of Mr. Bush and the Senate Republican leadership. Loyalty to Mr. Bush plus farm-lobby efforts meant that at least five Republican senators who otherwise would have voted 100 percent conservative dropped to 96.

“Last year, Republicans were still intimidated by Bush,” ACU chief lobbyist Larry Hart told The Times. “It’s always difficult for a party to deal with its president when he is doing the wrong thing - when you had the financial services bailout and Henry Paulson, the alleged ‘Republican’ secretary of the Treasury, telling lawmakers that the country will be in financial chaos if they don’t vote to give Paulson $700 billion without restrictions to spend as he sees fit.”

In an analysis accompanying the rating, ACU Vice President Donald J. Devine noted, “The highest scoring Democrats were Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu at 32 percent and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh at 29 percent.”

The bad news for conservatives was that the House and Senate tilted further left and Democrats showed more cohesion than in 2007.

For the first time since ACU initiated ratings, 50 senators and a majority of House members scored as liberal - that is, had an ACU score of 20 percent or lower. In 2007, liberals were six short of an absolute House majority and three short in the Senate.

The number of House Republicans scoring 80 percent or higher has steadily declined - from 172 members as recently as 2006 to 152 members in 2007 down to a low of 147 in 2008, Mr. Devine said. The number of House members scoring 100 percent were cut in half, from 62 in 2007 to 31 in 2008.

Some Senate Republicans, running scared for re-election, ran fast from their conservative voting records. Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina had a remarkably lower rating, going from 92 percent in 2007 to 54 percent in 2008, voting with the Democrats because she was scared of losing the election, said Mr. Hart.

But she lost anyway, Mr. Hart said, because “generally voters do not reward people who don’t vote on principles.”

“Even when Bush was taking the right position in vetoing the farm bill, the Republicans in the Senate helped override the veto,” Mr. Hart said.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, “thought by compromising his principles on that issue he would help himself in November but he almost lost the election because of it,” Mr. Hart said.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas dropped to 76 percent - below ACU’s 80 percent threshold to be considered conservative - from 88 percent in 2007.

“Democrats now enjoy a dominance over the House, Senate and White House superior to that held by the Republicans when they complained about they called the dangers of one-party control,” Mr. Devine said.

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