As I truck on down to Memphis today (wow, I sound just like Elvis) to attend the Southern Republican Leadership Conference and hear from a slew of 2008 presidential hopefuls (oh well, so much for Elvis), I can't help but recall the last time I hung out at one of these confabs. Then, as now, the purpose was to watch GOP presidential hopefuls in action. But with a bit of perspective, it's clear these events are often a primer on the short shelf life of ambitious politicians.
I went to the SRLC meeting of 1998. We in the press, along with a thousand Republican activists, gathered at a casino hotel in Biloxi, Mississippi (that hotel no longer exists, courtesy of Katrina), ate a lot of barbecue chicken, and assessed the rhetorical efforts of the GOP notables who were thirsting to succeed Bill Clinton in the White House.
The people we heard from included:
See what I mean when I say short shelf life? None of those guys wound up being big players in the 2000 race. John McCain didn't show up, and nobody had an inkling about him anyway. And George W. Bush didn't show up either, and I remember a party consultant saying "he's busy running for re-election in Texas, and we want to be loved, up close and early."
So instead we had Quayle, who made Bill Clinton jokes ("The centerpiece of my anticrime policy is 'three interns and you're out!"); Forbes, the flat tax missionary, who was working on not sounding robotic while trying to pander to the religious conservatives in the hall; Alexander, who was everybody's third or fourth choice, and looked like the guy who played Patty Duke's father on the old Patty Duke sitcom; Kemp, who jabbered nonstop and ended with a lament about how he wouldn't live long enough to ski with his grandson's future children; and Ashcroft, who walked around with a sonogram photo of his future grandchild in utero. (Ashcroft dropped out not long after, went back to Missouri to seek a new Senate term, and literally lost his re-election race to a dead person.)
The point is, beware the burnout factor, and the absentee factor. But at least John McCain is coming to Memphis, to face some of the same southern Republicans who spurned him in 2000. That's a decent story. He'll try to win them over without forfeiting his maverick profile. He'll walk the line.