WASHINGTON — Conservatives predict a political comeback against President Barack Obama and the Democrats who control Congress, rallying Friday against their liberal agenda while offering their own sometimes-competing visions of how they'd govern.
"It's 'take back Washington' time. We've got the fever," Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said to cheers from activists at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
Confident that they'll make big gains in November's congressional elections, Bachmann called her Republican Party "the majority in waiting" and drew applause when she proclaimed, "We are in the middle of a political bull market."
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., joined a growing chorus of conservatives in predicting that Obama will be defeated in 2012. A day earlier, former Vice President Dick Cheney told the same audience that Obama will be a one-term president.
The conservative revelry is rooted in a run of elections — in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia — in which Republicans have taken seats that Democrats had held. At the same time, Obama's agenda has bogged down in Congress, and polls and analysts suggest that a voter backlash fed by anxiety over unemployment could cost the Democrats dozens of seats in Congress, if not outright control.
With their hopes rising of winning back control of the House of Representatives and perhaps the Senate, conservatives also used the CPAC gathering to grapple with how they'd use the power and how they'd reconcile sometimes-competing priorities among economic conservatives, national security conservatives and social conservatives.
On the eve of the three-day meeting, for example, a group of prominent conservatives unveiled a statement of principles called Constitutional Conservatism that they hope will solve such internal tensions as:
- A push for regulation of marriage versus a fear of government intrusion.
"A Constitutional conservatism unites all conservatives through the natural fusion provided by American principles," the statement says.
"It reminds economic conservatives that morality is essential to limited government, social conservatives that unlimited government is a threat to moral self-government and national security conservatives that energetic but responsible government is the key to America's safety and leadership role in the world."
A key point of contention was how much power the federal government should have to spy on its citizens without warrants or court review in the name of stopping terrorism.
"We ought to be careful, very careful, in what we do in defense of this country," said former Attorney General John Ashcroft. "This is a country where the rights of citizens are regarded."
Another speaker at the meeting, former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., criticized the unchecked power of government surveillance even under the threat of terrorism, noting that the Founding Fathers put great limits on government power at a time when the United States faced what he called an even greater threat, the vast military power of the British empire.
Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, countered that, "The Constitution is not a suicide pact."
Last week, Cheney revealed in an interview on ABC that he and Ashcroft often disagreed over tactics in fighting terrorism, including whether to charge some suspected terrorists in criminal courts or in military tribunals.
Cheney, who said he both won and lost some of those battles, described one White House meeting as "a major shootout over how this was going to be handled between the Justice Department, that advocated that approach, and many of the rest of us, who wanted to treat it as an intelligence matter, as an act of war with military commissions."
Though none called it a disagreement, conservatives also offered different prescriptions for the massive federal budget deficits and debt, which rose sharply under George W. Bush and are accelerating under Obama.
Bachmann, for example, complained that the debt will create a drag on economic growth for years to come, likening the threat to the economic calamities that hit Germany in the 1920s, Argentina in the 1940s and Greece today. She didn't propose specific solutions.
Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., proposed cutting taxes to reduce the debt, saying that it would generate economic growth. "As all of you know, if we really want to balance the budget, we've got to grow this economy. And to do that, we should lower taxes and stop the regulatory madness."
However, nonpartisan studies have shown that tax cuts historically don't produce enough new tax revenue to offset the deeper deficits they cause.
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