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Old-time religion

Politics | The stars of yesterday headline a conference for conservative students-and that's fine with the youngsters

Issue: "Help on the inside," Aug. 12, 2006

WASHINGTON, D.C.- Like time capsules, names of all-stars-Newt Gingrich, Alexander Haig, even Robert Novak and Walter Williams-rouse nostalgia for conservatism's glory days.

But the glory days are over: The Reagan Revolution aides-de-camp have retired, and the Contract with America has expired. The average age of those four men above is 73, and the dynasty has aged with them. So should it seem odd that it's those four in particular-and not the fresher faces of conservatism like Ann Coulter or Tucker Carlson-whom a major college conference tapped last week as conservative idea wells, betting they could resonate with the youth? In this case, it was the annual Young America's Foundation (YAF) National Conservative Student Conference at George Washington University, where several hundred of the right's preeminent campus leaders gathered.

The entire conference mood was, in a word, "Reagan-esque," epitomized by YAF campus programs director Patrick Coyle when he disclosed that recently at Ronald Reagan's ranch in Santa Barbara, which YAF now runs, "I saw a jar of jellybeans"-the Gipper's favorite food-"that nobody had touched since Reagan passed away." During speaker breaks, '80s hits from The Who or The Clash echoed through the ballroom. It felt like a shrine.

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Dutifully, students leapt up in applause as Gingrich (right) took the podium, raised off the stage like a pulpit. Sipping a Diet Coke, he went into talking points mostly from his latest book, Winning our Future (an apropos campaign slogan for one mulling a presidential bid), and regurgitated figures, dates, and witty sound bites without notes.

At one point, Gingrich said the amount of science will increase four- to seven-fold in the next 25 years-precisely the sort of evidence skeptics cite when wondering whether the conservative movement's elders resonate with today's up-and-comers. As if in answer, Gingrich went on to reference eBay, Craigslist, and iPods (his website features "iNewt" podcasts) and even joked that young conservatives should be advocating private Social Security accounts in online dating services.

Nevertheless, lines like "What you want is a litigation system which protects your equity interests in a fair way at the lowest cost to society and with the fewest possible lawsuits" got perplexed looks from students who didn't know what, exactly, he was saying or why, more importantly, it pertained to their lives. Mentioning at length a Florida website for competitively priced medicine, MyFloridaRX.com, didn't help, either.

Later Luke Martz of Iowa State University and his tablemates sat at lunch in the adjoining banquet hall assembling a perfect fantasy speaker lineup. No one had heard Michelle Malkin, who would speak later; she was ineligible. Most of them had heard Ann Coulter before, and Kirsten Magnuson from St. Olaf College vetoed her. Gingrich and Walter Williams emerged as consensus favorites: "You know, who else would we get to hear those opinions from?" Martz pointed out. "I got ideas in case I ever run for president."

But won't those older guys miss the important student issues? Another student, Sean Harrington of Washburn University, had said that students' issues are no different than their parents', and this may be right. Ask youth what's important, and the answers mirror any Gallup poll: terrorism, deficit spending, Social Security, skyrocketing gas prices, even revolving-door reforms to put a little more space between Capitol Hill and K Street-everything short of regulating HMOs.

President Bush's approval rating among conservatives is hovering around 65 percent, but here among the students it is hard to find an unbeliever. Many cite Bush as their top role model. Gingrich left a bitter taste for many conservatives, but students here were worrying only about recess at the time he was upbraided for ethics breaches and divisive partisan mudslinging. The Reagan Revolution predates them, so they have experienced only the ideas of men they see, in the words of Drew Stewart of the University of Kansas, as "sort of modern Lockes or Burkes."

"Even if the so-called 'glory days' are gone, the left has nobody like Gingrich to bring in," he said between bites of fajita soft taco. "There's not, I don't think, the danger of guys like him failing to resonate with us. He's above cultural relevance."

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