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Sentimental Revolutionaries

College Republicans pick a new leader.

12:00 AM, Jul 26, 2007 • By GARIN HOVANNISIAN
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THE COLLEGE REPUBLICAN National Committee launched its annual convention at the Sheraton Hotel in Arlington, Virginia, on July 13. Hundreds of College Republicans make the pilgrimage every two years to elect a new board and to check up on their comrades in the right-wing conspiracy. According to veterans, the elections can be a serious--and occasionally dirty--business, contaminating the revelries of the weekend with backroom dealings, liquefying alliances, and general enmity.

None of that pettiness this year, however, as Charlie Smith, a Colorado boy with a reformist vocabulary, led an uncontested slate of candidates under the banner of "New CRNC." The "old," as it turns out, had "issues of financial transparency" and had stashed some "shady stuff" under its belt. But incoming executive director Ethan Eilon assured, "I can't imagine anybody being overwhelmingly displeased with Charlie." And so with no overwhelming--or at least noisy--displeasure, the festivities unfolded in the lobby, where dozens of conservative groups displayed their literature and tendered assistance and doughnuts to the conservative grassroots.

"Grassroots," though, might not be the right label for the CRNC crowd, bejeweled as it was with cufflinks, rings, and ambitions aimed well above collegiate targets. When I was nurturing the local grassroots at UCLA, where I edited our heterodox newspaper the Bruin Standard, a conservative organizer once offered me the rather phony compliment of being the grass-tops. That term, if we are to use it at all, should probably be readdressed to the CRNC's lords and ladies.

And yet, behind the affectations, the activist aristocracy still harbors activist emotions and appetites. The students were delightedly sampling from the booths of the Leadership Institute, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Young America's Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, and a host of 501(c)3-sounding societies that echoed soundbites of conservative sound and fury.

Accuracy in Academia exhibited its most popular bumper-stickers--among them, "PETA: People Eating Tasty Animals," "Ted Kennedy's car killed more people than my gun," and "Get the US out of the UN." National Right to Life displayed ultrasound pictures of newly conceived babies. Rants against the liberal media enjoyed heavy circulation, too. The Media Research Center passed out T-shirts with the image of Uncle Sam and this accompanying warning: "Don't believe the liberal media!" The Leadership Institute declared in its guidebook that Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is "one of the most devastating critiques ever written of big government and the liberal media." The theory, alas, does not survive scrutiny. Rand's only (and trivial) reference to the media has her protagonist, John Galt, take over the national airwaves to deliver a monumental, three-hour defense of individual rights.

College conservative activism is most authentic here, where passion supplants reason as argument's locomotive. On page 124 of the American Cause, which I picked up from the table of the Leadership Institute, Russell Kirk writes of two types of revolutionary:

1) The naïve or sentimental revolutionary, who believes that something is hopelessly wrong with life as we know it and that their revolutionary agenda can actually provide the remedy for the ills to which humanity is heir . . .

2) The realistic, practical revolutionary, who may employ humanitarian phrases to win converts, but whose real aim is pure power.

Like every political organization, the College Republican National Committee has its helping of the second. (Jack Abramoff served as its president from 1981 to 1985.) But most College Republicans, even with their patrician look, remain sentimental revolutionaries.

Which is why, as the national Republican party regularly compromises on traditional conservative issues, the College Republicans stand firm. Forget doubts about the Iraq War; when it comes to foreign policy, "peace through strength" is still the catch-phrase du jour. At a time when their commander-in-chief backed an omnibus immigration bill, the CRs almost unanimously railed against "amnesty to criminals."

It was Sam Brownback, not Rudy Giuliani or John McCain, who incited the cheers and howls of an adoring CR audience. Mitt Romney did not grace the impressive speaker series, but he too commanded loyalty. Of all the candidates, only Romney had sent campaigners to the convention to distribute stickers and magazines that announced: "Romney to the rescue."