Although Republican losses during this election cycle were ubiquitous, leaders and students of Young America’s Foundation — an organization bringing the conservative movement to college campuses — focused on what it considered to be the positive aspects of the elections at its annual West Coast Leadership Conference this weekend. Held at Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort, a host of guest speakers — many of them having become involved in YAF when they were in college — looked to America’s youth to continue the advance of conservative values in American politics. “Our future lies not in Republicans acting more like Democrats, but Republicans acting like Republicans,” said Ron Nehring, the state chair of the California Republican Party and one of the speakers at Saturday’s well-attended event.
An offshoot of Youth for Goldwater — which supported Barry Goldwater, the GOP candidate who lost the 1964 presidential race to Lyndon Johnson — YAF was formed in 1969 as a conservative outreach organization. Nehring said he was among the ranks of young Goldwater supporters who became involved in YAF, later extending his enthusiastic support to the Reagan administration. YAF informational materials state a dedication to President Ronald Reagan’s principles. The organization purchased Rancho del Cielo — Reagan’s Western White House in Santa Barbara County — in 1998 to “preserve it as a living monument to Reagan’s accomplishments.”
Representative Mark Souder, a Republican who has served Indiana’s 3rd Congressional District since 1995, spoke at the conference as well, urging college-aged conservatives to get involved, albeit not just in the political arena. “The biggest need we have is for young conservatives to get involved in radio, TV, books, movies, and scriptwriting to influence culture,” he said. “[Liberals] are shaping the debate.” Souder covered a range of subjects, including the potential threats posed by the People’s Republic of China and a resurgent Russian Federation. Although he voiced support for alternative energy, he told students to be realistic about the options available. “You are not going to power a GM pickup plant with a wind turbine,” he said, adding his conviction that too much regulation and less access to cheap energy is damaging to the economy and makes U.S. industry less competitive.
One of the main issues broached at this weekend’s conference was the role played by conservative student groups on college campuses that speakers said are largely geared toward liberal ideology. “The university is the ultimate intellectual bubble,” said syndicated conservative talk radio host Dennis Prager to students. “The mind is destroyed in liberal arts. God grants certain unalienable rights. In order to argue otherwise, you have to have gone to graduate school.” Prager, who referred to liberal cable news commentator Keith Olbermann as “the worst person in the world,” called peace activism “a form of auto eroticism. You feel good, but you don’t make any babies,” he said. “It is the U.S. and its power that keeps peace on earth. It won’t be, if it follows the left, the best country in the world.”
Many students in the audience of about 385 college Republicans and nearly 200 Foundation supporters agreed with the views stated by speakers about maintaining U.S. military supremacy and vigilance toward China and Russia. “We need to be very firm with Russia, especially regarding Iran,” said Patrick Casten, chair of the College Republicans at Lake Forest College, located in a North Shore suburb of Chicago. “We shouldn’t have a fear of going back to that Cold War situation.” Casten also referenced the tragedy of September 11, 2001, saying that as Americans, we can all pitch in together when there is a major challenge to be met.
YAF has helped some students, such as Sarah Wilson — a student from Dennison University in Ohio who is interning at the Reagan Ranch — find their political voice. Coming from a conservative agricultural family in Bakersfield, she wanted to play the field, so to speak, in terms of political ideologies. “It made sense to be a conservative after exploring the political spectrum,” she said. Since she made that choice she has served as the president of her campus’s College Republicans for two years as well as working on President George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign. This year was particularly interesting for her, she said, as she was able to connect with some intense political campaigning in the swing state of Ohio, which Republicans lost to Barack Obama by nearly 207,000 votes.
Remaining optimistic, Nehring and others pointed out that the GOP was able to avoid a Democratic super-majority in Congress, a feat he said took no small bit of doing in a year when Democrats unseated many longtime Republican incumbents. Many looked to John McCain’s concession speech — in which he urged a spirit of cooperation between the two parties and an effort to find common ground — as a model of cooperation. “I’m keeping an open mind,” said Ross Nolan, a former Marine who serves as the current president of UCSB’s College Republicans. “Obama is starting with a clean slate. I want this guy to do great. We’re in a financial crisis, and if he does great, the economy will do great.”
Joey Carazza, a UCSB student and Reagan Ranch intern, disagreed with President-elect Obama’s plan to fix the economic crisis. “I’m not going to support something I don’t think is going to help,” he said. “We should stop trying to do anything and let it fix itself. I haven’t seen the government do very much to fix this at all.”
Not to be shelved was the ever hot topic of McCain’s vice presidential running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. “She’s one of the best conservative women we’re probably going to get,” said Kate Obenshain, YAF’s vice president and the former chair of Virginia’s Republican Party (YAF is headquartered in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Herndon, Virginia). “To liberals, a conservative woman is never ready for office.”
Aside from decrying what they called empty ideological rhetoric by the Obama campaign, speakers offered suggestions to Republican students centered around successful debate tactics and local government strategies. “Our party must put priority in winning local elections,” said Nehring. “School boards, water boards, mosquito abatement districts — we have to build up a farm team of which Sarah Palin is the highest profile member. We have better ideas, but the Democrats are doing a better job of communicating.”