Every decade of conservatives has its hero. In fact, I think Ronald Reagan became the hero of the conservatives who came up in the 1970s and 1980s. He won the Cold War, he cut and then simplified taxes, he fought the unions, and he was an outspoken champion of the pro-life cause. He energized a movement, a party, and a country. It's why many of us flew in for CPAC to an airport named for him.
In the 1990s, for those of us who were too young to appreciate President Reagan, we had Speaker Gingrich. "Newt is the man!" is what one CPAC blogger said to me, when I admitted I still enjoyed seeing him here as much as I did. I am a fan, not just an activist, when it comes to Gingrich. He broke a 40 year old hold the Democrats had on the House, he introduced Americans to the 10th amendment, he smashed up the old, destructive welfare system, and he cut spending to the point that the national debt went down.
Looking around at CPAC now though, seeing the students here and watching the excitement, it's clear to me that the youth coming up today have their own hero, and his name is Ron Paul.
I know: Ron Paul has no chance of becoming President. I already know every criticism there is of the man. But much as with Reagan and Gingrich, I think the youth in their idealism are oblivious to the criticisms and the political issues involved, and are in love with the idea of Ron Paul.
To the young people wearing Campaign for Liberty stickers, Ron Paul isn't the porker who hasn't accomplished anything in his long DC career but to spin conspiracy theories about the Federal Reserve. He is the idea of small government, respect for the Constitution, and a stable economy. It doesn't matter that his monetary ideas would be a disaster for every American with a mortgage – not just all Americans who got in over their heads, but all Americans with debt – because that doesn't matter yet to college kids. The details don't matter; it's the spirit that counts.
If that sounds silly, remember that the previous heroes also had their faults. Ronald Reagan put Justices O'Connor and Kennedy on the court, raised taxes on many families when he passed the tax simplification, and created our current illegal immigration crisis by signing an amnesty coupled with impractical employment restrictions.
Newt Gingrich? He didn't last as Speaker nearly as long as he could have, he lost the media war of the government shutdown, he allowed himself to get bogged down in ethics controversies (just like Sarah Palin!), and in the end he left a House GOP that was all too comfortable with letting spending go back up.
We all know this, but in the end we weigh the ideas these men represented and fought for, against the nitpicking failures, and we celebrate the ideas in the end. Reagan is remembered as a hero, Gingrich as a winner, and yes, many of the young people of today have a crush on the ideas Ron Paul represents, regardless of what the practical reality looks like.
I'm not sure what this means for the party in the next 20 years, but I think we'll have to find a way to make peace. I'm not calling for a truce, but we'll have to deal with it.