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Conservatives at CPAC Talking the Talk — But Can they Walk the Walk?

But this is a question of tactics and not a recognition that something is fundamentally wrong. Pence is one of the more thoughtful lawmakers on the Hill but his appearance at CPAC was more as a cheerleader than critic. His belief that Republicans "lost their way" may be accurate, but his hopeful rhetoric about a "great American awakening" was almost surreal. There is plenty of frustration with the president's spending and bailouts but this has yet to translate into opposition. The latest polls show a wide majority of citizens backing the president's gamble that spending trillions of dollars will not hasten or cause a collapse but actually bring the economy back to life. That hardly seems like a national "awakening" no matter how you spin it.

Pence isn't the only conservative whose optimism, while certainly welcome and a definite part of any reform that needs to take place, nevertheless seems strangely out of place. David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union, is equally Pollyannish:

"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.

While there may be an agreement by conservatives regarding that critique, it presupposes that there were not other, more fundamental aspects of what conservatism has become that were roundly rejected by huge swaths of the American electorate. The movement is seen as intolerant of gays, immigrants, and other non-white, non-middle class citizens -- a perception that the Republican Party does little to counter and makes attacking conservatism on these issues extremely easy. When one of the stars of the conservative movement (and a CPAC speaker on Saturday), Ann Coulter, can get up in front of conservatives at the CPAC conference in 2007 and refer to Arabs as "ragheads" to loud applause, there is more to reform than just the message.

Until conservatives can practice some painful introspection, looking with a self-critical eye at the reasons for the debacles of 2006 and 2008, most in the movement will continue to delude themselves that simply reaffirming conservative love of small government, low taxes, and less regulation will be enough to convince a majority of Americans that they recognize their shortcomings and have changed their tune. There must be a reckoning with those who violate the very nature of conservatism by obstinately adhering to exclusionary, anti-intellectual precepts that have thrown classical conservatism over in favor of ranting, ideological tantrums.