CPAC conference: Renewal on the right

What a difference an election makes.

Two years ago, I reported in these pages on the gloomy, bunker-like atmosphere at the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Conservatives and fellow travelers were then reeling from two straight election-cycle losses, culminating in the most liberal president in at least half a century. Worse, there was then no obvious leader to pick up the conservative colors after the exhausting tenure of George W. Bush and the stunning failure of the 2008 McCain/Palin ticket.

How ironic that the best thing to have happened to conservatism since Ronald Reagan turned out to be Barack Obama himself. The president badly misread his mandate and for the past two years has pushed the nation far too left far too fast for many citizens, prompting a tide of dissatisfaction that swept the GOP back into power in the House of Representatives last November. The 11,000 conservatives who gathered at CPAC in Washington last week displayed all the ebullient giddiness one would expect in the aftermath of such a splendid victory; everyone from tea party moms to would-be presidential contenders gathered to strut and posture.

Among the latter was Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who gave the keynote speech at Friday night's Reagan Banquet. Don't believe the buzz that Mr. Daniels wowed his entire audience; the speech, while containing the right boilerplate about fiscal discipline, meandered. His few clever lines (our national debt is the "new red menace") were not nearly as clever as he thought, and the frequent clunkers were unforgivable from a serious presidential candidate. After the empty charisma of President Obama, will voters be open to a soft-spoken, calm, less-than-riveting pol like Mr. Daniels? He better hope so.

Mr. Daniels was not helped by the ubiquitous presence of Ronald Reagan, whose recent birth centennial gave conservatives the opportunity to celebrate their hero with even more fervor than usual. Mr. Reagan was clearly, though posthumously, the star of CPAC; his image was everywhere. Unfortunately, the constant reminders of Mr. Reagan's good cheer and raw political skill inevitably made the current crop of GOP hopefuls seem quite pale by comparison.

As for other possible 2012 contenders, Sarah Palin was absent — to the relief of some, to the disappointment of more. Ron Paul won the straw poll and was a force throughout the conference; lines at his book signing wrapped around the room. When I asked one supporter what it was about Mr. Paul that appealed to her, she said simply: "Liberty. Look into it."

And that, indeed, may have been the keyword for the whole conference. Liberty. The word was everywhere, T-shirts, banners, pens, pamphlets. Serious, sophisticated arguments about liberty abounded in the halls and bars: what it is, how we can keep and nourish it, how to spread the word of its fragile and endangered status.

To that end, conservatives have embraced "new media" with a vengeance: Anyone thinking liberals are more naturally suited to the modern world of blogs and tweets is frightfully ill informed. As Owen Brennan of Pajamas TV told me: "Tea partiers have been using Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets to express their outrage toward Washington policies. And new media franchises like PJTV have been feeding the country's growing appetite for conversations about the proper role of government."

Among other CPAC highlights: Capital Research Center president Terrence Scanlon moderated a Saturday panel on the growth of public sector unions, featuring labor experts Vincent Vernuccio of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Steve Malanga of the Manhattan Institute. Mr. Malanga noted, with obvious glee, that the $3 trillion unfunded state pension liability crisis, largely driven by public sector unionism, is finally getting the public attention it deserves. One can only hope that it isn't too late.

President Obama has clearly made a vast swath of the American public feel as though their liberty and prosperity are in peril. CPAC 2011 gave this opposition a platform to plan the next step in its counter-revolution — and have a blast while doing it.

Matt Patterson, a Rockville resident, is a contributor to "Proud to be Right: Voices of the Next Conservative Generation." His e-mail is