PHILADELPHIA — For conservatives who participated in the Heritage Foundation’s annual Conservative Members Retreat here, the 2012 elections are less about the “mundane” ins and outs of policy fights over immigration, spending and the deficit and even less about which of the four remaining Republican presidential candidates will be their standard-bearer in November.
For the most dyed-in-the-wool conservatives of Speaker John Boehner’s (Ohio) Conference, 2012 represents a grim showdown over the soul of America, 100 years in the making.
“There is nothing that unites conservatives and maybe Republicans in general than the abject nightmare of a two-term Barack Obama,” Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said Friday.
One of the more remarkable things about the retreat, which took place Wednesday through Friday, was the relative diversity of the Members attending. Slightly less than half of the 47 or so Members came from the freshman class. And while the retreat leaned heavily toward conservatives such as Franks and Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Louie Gohmert (Texas), other parts of the party’s conservative movement were in attendance. Even Boehner’s leadership team was well-represented, with Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas) and House Republican Policy Committee Chairman Tom Price (Ga.) here.
In a business such as modern politics — ruled by calculation and pragmatism — the earnest ideological themes of the Heritage Foundation conference are all the more striking.
“The purpose of this is to re-energize folks to say, ‘The reason you gave up that career, the reason you gave up the attention you might have otherwise been able to provide for your family, the reason you believed it was important to run — those reasons are still important,’” Price said Thursday.
Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) — who in the past has sparred with Heritage’s political arm, Heritage Political Action — also said the conference was valuable.
“I don’t agree with everything, but the lawyer in me [says], ‘Learn as much as you can.’ And I’ve learned a lot here this weekend,” Rooney said. “When you have opportunities as this to get as much information that you can from really smart people, you take it.”
Franks made clear the ugly future that he believes the nation faces if Obama is re-elected.
“If Barack Obama is re-elected, I fear that Iran will gain nuclear weapons and our entire world perception and reality will change. I see us falling into sort of a European socialist construct that will be very difficult for us to extract ourselves from,” he warned. “Ultimately, I see almost a fundamental abrogation of the Constitution based on the Supreme Court nominees he will put forward.”
To lose the election means failing “future generations and our children profoundly.”
Jordan, who chairs the Republican Study Committee, also said the elections would have far-reaching consequences.
“This is, in my judgment, a watershed election. A ‘two different visions for America’ election. And the fact that we’re spending three days refocusing on those fundamental principles that started this experiment in liberty we call ‘America’ is critical,” Jordan said Friday.
And organizers said that was exactly the point of this year’s retreat. Eschewing its traditional focus on specific policy issues, Heritage put together a program focused on broad themes designed to reinforce conservatives’ perceptions of the nation’s history and the struggle between conservatives and progressives.
Shortly after gathering in Philadelphia, Members were taken on a tour of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, where the Founding Fathers gathered for months to draft the Declaration of Independence. The field trip was a not-so-subtle reminder of what conservatives should fight for, organizers said.
During Thursday’s session, Members gathered in a conference room 50 floors above the city as speakers ran through subject matter as sweeping as the vistas — the history of the republic’s founding, as well as the ideological war between conservatives and progressives that has dominated American politics for 100 years.
“This year we thought, ‘There seems to be more at stake,’” said Michael Franc, vice president of government studies at Heritage. “This seems to be a big watershed election in the sense that a hundred years after the 1912 election, this really is a referendum … for how popular or not popular modern progressivism is. How do you take what [President] Theodore Roosevelt and [President] Woodrow Wilson started in their intellectual brain trust back then and translate it into the modern time?”
Even the name organizers assigned to the various panels — “Is America’s Decline Inevitable?,” “The War of the Century, the Battle Engaged,” “Creating Opportunity and Prosperity in the Free Markets,” “What Americans Think of the Federal Leviathan” and “The Founders’ View of Civil Society” — underscored the seriousness of the fight conservatives believe is coming to a head.
According to Franc, a major part of the retreat was “not just understanding progressivism … but also its application ... what we call ‘cronyism,’ picking winners and losers,” as well as increased regulation, “class warfare” and other areas.