The GOP Prepares for War in New Orleans

The headline on Politico's resident Democratic Party cheerleader Ben Smith's blog was curious: "Republicans convene in New Orleans, with no mention of Katrina."

What makes this such a puzzling headline is that residents of New Orleans that I talked to weren't mentioning it either. Recovery from the devastating natural disaster has been slow but fairly steady, and those that I asked about the effort to rebuild were matter of fact about progress. One hotel worker I asked about Katrina recovery pointed to several reopenings of apartment complexes as evidence that things are getting better. She was a little frustrated with the pace of improvement, believing that "some areas have gotten more money than others." But the general feeling among residents -- and they have showed up in force at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference (SRLC) -- was satisfaction at the efforts of state and local government to bring the city back from where it was five years ago.

Besides, the attendees at the SRLC appear to be in no mood to dwell on the past. The first general session last night was marked by enthusiasm and excitement at the prospects for victory in November's midterm elections. For comparison, I attended the 2009 CPAC event and can report that the difference in mood between the two confabs is astonishing. There was much defensiveness at that CPAC conference as well as a subdued atmosphere that reflected Obama's recent ascension to the presidency. The contrast with the eagerness for combat expressed by the speakers and attendees here in New Orleans is striking.

That combativeness was best illustrated by two of last night's speakers: Liz Cheney and Newt Gingrich.

Ms. Cheney gave a speech that took the Obama administration to task for its foreign policy retreats. At times, her criticisms were a direct challenge to the Democrats' narrative of her father's tenure as vice president. Her biggest applause lines came when she defended the use of "enhanced interrogation" techniques by the CIA, saying that "foreign terrorists do not have constitutional rights." She also skewered Attorney General Holder for going after interrogators of the terrorists while dithering about setting up the new interrogation regime at the Justice Department.

But Cheney saved her harshest criticisms for the administration's Israeli policy:

In the era of Obama, American allies have their loyalty met with humiliation, arrogance, and incompetence. The shabby reception Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu received in Washington a few weeks ago -- being treated as an uninvited guest at the White House -- was disgraceful. President Obama must not understand the most fundamental point about US-Israeli relations – the world is safer when there is no daylight between America and the state of Israel.

Israel is our strongest ally in the Middle East and one of our strongest and most important allies in the world. Barack Obama is playing a reckless game that could have deadly consequences if he continues on the path of diminishing America’s ties to Israel.

Cheney also had plenty to say about Obama's Iran policy:

Iran watches as the administration answers their threats with weakness, confusion and self-serving lectures that put down America and diminish our achievements. That kind of talk can win you a Nobel Prize these days, but it dishonors this nation, and the brave men and women who have fought and died for our freedom.

Attendees gave her a standing ovation for that swipe at Obama's Nobel Peace Prize.

Newt Gingrich threw even more red meat to the audience with his critique of the administration's domestic policy, eliciting cheers and jeers from attendees. Using the "S" word that some Republicans fear could backfire on the GOP if they try to paint the Obama administration as "socialists," Gingrich brought the crowd to its feet:

"The most radical president in American history has now thrown down the gauntlet to the American people: 'I run a machine. I own Washington and there's nothing you can do about it,'" Gingrich said. He urged his fellow Republicans to stop what he called Obama's "secular, socialist machine."

The former House speaker seemed to relish his role as potential candidate for president in 2012. If he's not running, he's doing a darn good imitation of a candidate for president. As he did at the CPAC conference, Gingrich entered the Grand Ballroom at the Hilton Riverside from the rear to the blaring of the "Eye of the Tiger" rock anthem, making his way to the podium through throngs of admirers, pressing the flesh and taking his time to allow the cheers to rise to even higher levels.

When he spoke, his conversational tone masked the harshness of his evaluation of Obama's presidency:

"This is a fundamental fight over the core definition of America," Gingrich said. He told the crowd they should be talking about culture, not politics. "The more we make this a choice about the nature of America, the weaker they are," he said.

Gingrich told a story about the Polish people when they were resisting communism, who he said came up with the slogan, "two plus two equals four," taking it from the writings of Albert Camus and George Orwell. He said the slogan grew from the fact that the authorities can't handle the truth, tying it to what he suggested were nonsensical numbers offered by Democrats about the health care bill.

"There are more of us than there are of the government," the former House speaker said, midway through his story about Polish resistance to communism. "So why are we afraid of them?"

He never said it outright, but Gingrich made it clear that he believed that President Obama's agenda was, at the very least, a radical break from America's past while he stopped short of saying it was "un-American." Again, as with the risk of painting the administration as "socialist," trying to sell the majority of voters on the "un-American" charge invites a backlash from independents and moderate Democratic voters who eschew that kind of extreme partisan rhetoric.

But the SRLC is hardly a place where such language is unwelcome. The GOP, more confident, combative, and fired up than it's been in years, relishes the coming fight as a former heavyweight boxing champion looks forward to a rematch with the fighter who knocked him out of the ring in their previous contest.

Judging by the mood of New Orleans attendees, the smart money will be on the challenger.