Thoughts from AFP: Where’s the Conservative Movement

 I spent some time at Americans for Prosperity’s second annual conference in Washington, DC this weekend. I will have several things to say, but let me focus on a series of conversations that I heard in the hallways and at the dinners. Where is the conservative movement going?

First, this crowd is very pessimistic about the election. Nearly all were not supporters of John McCain in the primary, and they weren’t excited about a McCain presidency. But they didn’t think that they were going to have that problem. Everyone was talking about a Barack Obama presidency.

Second, people were worried about the Democratic agenda in the next Congress. Card-check, health care, and the environment all came up regularly. I also mentioned that the first bill signed into law in the Clinton Administration was Motor Voter, which provided, 3 years later, the statutory basis of  Obama’s lawsuit, ACORN v. State of Illinois.

Third, no one sees who the groups will be. Furthermore, the old conservative movement leaders weren’t there. I saw Grover Norquist and Ed Meese, but I didn’t see Morton Blackwell, Paul Weyrich, Ed Feulner, or similar figures. Interestingly, the old conservative movement leaders who were there were Reagan people but not Goldwater people. Many of the old conservative movement institutions predated Reagan.

Fourth, the fact that those leaders weren’t there raises the question: who will be the next leaders. None of these groups have a credible succession plan. The stature of these groups will likely collapse. National Review, which does have some wonderful people but cannot be said to be the opinion leader it once was, was cited repeatedly as an example.

Fifth, people hate the bailout. I think that we will find that this issue will resonate with the grassroots for years to come. If Republicans and conservatives build a real grassroots, the movement will be able to fund itself without the instincts that led to the bailout. This will bring, in some ways, the grassroots into alignment with the people responsible for building and executing the party apparatus. If we are not, we will continue to be dependent upon business leaders who saw the bailout as necessary. If the movement cares about taking control of the party, it will need to figure out how to fund the party. Otherwise, this tension will continue.

Sixth, there is a lack of leaders. People are interested in Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal. None of the other governors appeal. People know the names Jim DeMint and Eric Cantor. There aren’t other high-profile leaders that seemed to resonate. I don’t hear much interest in the other people who ran for President. The next round of GOP governors are going to create new models of conservative governance. And why didn’t no members of congress come to this meeting? Only James Inhofe, who got an award. Oy.

It really seems like it is time to build “the next right.” This old one doesn’t seem to exist any more. We will need new political leaders. We will need new organizational leaders. We will need new ideas.

I think that it is clear that AFP will be a leader in this space. AFP had more energy than any other group I have seen recently. They had 1,857 paid registrations in October 3 weeks before the election. Trade associations and unions put more people into rooms in DC, but I can’t think of any conservative interest group other than NRA which has a larger national convention.