“Karl is on White House time, we hope he gets here by five, but you just never know,” explained Alison Aikele, the 20-year-old communications director of the College Republicans as she stood by the door of the Windfall Lounge and Grill in Midtown.
On Monday night, about 100 kids flocked to the College Republican State Chairmen Reception at the Windfall, to hear the auteur of George Bush’s 2000 victory, über-operative Karl Rove, deliver a locker room pep talk of sorts.
The consummate strategist was coming to guide the foot soldiers. Only, of course, he was late.
The clean-cut crowd looked like any tie-loosened bunch of investment bankers blowing off work early. Young men, most with thick shoulders, navy blazers and short cropped hair, idled by the bar nattering between sips from pints of frothy beer. Women in prim, colorful suits, chatted at tables off to the side. A young man with a floppy bow tie and seersucker pants walked by with a “DumpDaschle.com” sticker plastered on his jacket lapel. One stern looking young woman with a flowing blond mane talked with a reporter about the virtues of “personal responsibility” and “moral clarity.”
The conversations drowned out the Fox News broadcast that played on the twin televisions flanking the bar. Then, by the door, bodies scurried, and someone shouted, “He’s here!” At the sight of Mr. Rove’s entrance a rapturous chorus erupted: “We love Rove! We love Rove! We love Rove!” they cried in unison.
Mr. Rove, wearing a slate gray suit and starched white shirt over his doughy frame, glided through the chants towards a small podium perched at the rear of the bar, and aired a confidant grin as he looked out at his congregation. His broad dome of a forehead glistened under the klieg lights and pulsing camera flashes.
“Our college effort is absolutely vital to this election!” he began. As Mr. Rove extolled the President’s campaign themes-War on Terrorism! Conviction! Values!-the crowd eased forward, forming a tight huddle around him. The young men and women, eye-level with Mr. Rove, appeared to be looking up to the veteran political architect, soaking in his every syllable with repeated nods of approval.
“You are the rising generation,” he continued. “If we want our conservative philosophy to be America’s governing philosophy for the next 10, 20 or 30 years, the time to do it is in this election.
“I love how, in the environment that the Democrats consider their natural territory, it’s the College Republicans who vastly outnumber the College Democrats!” Mr. Rove concluded to bursts of thunderous applause.
That “natural territory” to which Mr. Rove referred is America’s college kids.
Mr. Rove’s hearty reception showed just how strong, and vocal, the newest class of Republican voters may be. From Crawford, Tex., to Columbia University, a new cadre of conservative has taken form. While 19-year old liberals recoil at the mere utterance of the words “George Bush,” these young Republicans expressed a tenacious resolve that went beyond wonkish policy debates to core principles of America’s place in the world and the philosophy of individualism.
In fact, one has to look no further than Columbia University to find them. A newly emboldened College Republican Club is exploding in membership in the heart of the liberal intellectual Upper West Side with the stated goal to upend Columbia’s once indomitable liberal legacy.
In the past two years, seeds of conservatism have sprouted in the shadow of Low Library’s granite dome on Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus, once a paladin of liberalism-where Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg got to know each other, and where more than 1,000 protesters occupied four academic buildings in the conflagration of 1968-that today is witnessing a rapid resurgence in conservative politics not seen since Ronald Reagan occupied the Oval Office.
Since 2002, the College Republicans at Columbia have rocketed from less than 50 members to nearly 400 undergrads, law students and M.B.A.’s. More than 100 Columbia students are now volunteering at the Republican National Convention. When the student body returns to campus next week, the College Republicans will distribute 1,000 copies of The Citade l, Columbia’s first-ever campus-wide Conservative newspaper, which they hope will be a vocal counterweight to the more liberal minded Columbia Spectator . And the Conservative Club-a student group that swings further to the right-also witnessed impressive growth last year, adding 12 new members. They now stand at 50.
Indeed, the growth in college conservatism has some in the Columbia community wondering-what has gotten into these kids? Is the new conservative renaissance the result of post–Sept. 11 shell shock? Is it a backlash against the liberal professors, born out of 1960s radicalism, who populate the ranks of the academy? Or a result of the media’s idea that conservatism has become cool? The New York Times Magazine labeled the party of Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert last May “Hipublican.”
“We’re tired of just hearing one point of view, and that point of view would clearly be from the left,” Prabal Saxena, a 19-year-old physics and math major who is the executive director of the College Republicans, said. “There is this atmosphere at Columbia that is almost not accepting of dissension. They are out of touch with the vast majority of America.
“I’ve heard of students having to tailor their papers to show a liberal bias so they could get better grades,” Mr. Saxena said, before relating a story of one fellow Columbia student who wrote a paper with a conservative streak only to get a C+. The next paper this student wrote was slanted to the left, and received high marks by the same professor, who pointed out the paper to the class as exemplary work. “In one class I had my sophomore year, all the readings were about class warfare from one perspective. All we got exposed to was Joan Didion, and writers like that.”
“Our goal is to serve as a home for conservatives who feel oppressed by the atmosphere at Columbia,” said Mark Xue, 20, the president of the Columbia Conservative Club who also serves as the director of operations for the College Republicans.
In describing what they want out of their Columbia professors, some College Republicans invoked Fox News’ slogan: “Fair and Balanced.”
The generation of newly inspired conservatives now at Columbia became conscious during the swingin’ Clinton years, and were raised on a heady diet of reality television, PlayStation and cable news (Fox News hit the airwaves in 1996). Some also retain a varnished image of Reagan as the iconic conservative and the consummate Cold Warrior.
Today’s Columbia conservatives are different than an elder breed of loafer-wearing blue bloods from, say, Darien, Conn. They are less affluent and less doctrinaire. Many Columbia conservatives support Mr. Bush’s war on terror, his pro-business agenda and his championing of personal responsibility, but they also retain moderate social views on issues ranging from abortion and gay marriage to stem cell research and faith-based charity.
At Columbia, the 17-member College Republican executive board includes two Indians, two Chinese, several Jews and three women. Mr. Saxena, the executive director, was born in Mumbai, India, and now lives in Hicksville, Long Island, where his father runs a Howard Johnson’s motel. The Conservative Club’s Mr. Xue, an immigrant from Shanghai, moved from China to the Upper West Side and attended Hunter High School. Dennis Schmelzer, the president of the College Republicans and a political-science and economics major, is Jewish and, he claims, one of the few Republicans in his liberal hometown of Huntington, Long Island.
“People look at me like a black sheep-all the Jews in my town are Democrats,” the 20-year-old junior, said. A son of a Vietnam veteran, he said he originally supported Al Gore in 2000, but after Sept. 11, Mr. Bush’s muscular foreign policy won him over. The recent Swift boat imbroglio has only strengthened his support for Mr. Bush against Mr. Kerry.
Clara Magram, a 19-year old Baltimore native and the assistant executive director of the College Republicans, explained: “I feel like I’m making history here. It’s a different party than it was in the old days. They don’t pay attention to race, gender or that kind of thing. Look, I’m Jewish and a girl. And George Bush is a Christian man. We’re of one mind. I feel like kin to George W. Bush.”
The newly emboldened conservative movement at Columbia is determined to get its message out, even if the ends require drastic and polarizing means. Last February, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling in support of the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action policy, the Columbia College Conservative Club staged an Affirmative Action Bake Sale on the ramps of Alfred Lerner Hall-where chocolate-chip cookies and brownies were sold at reduced prices to women, Jews, students of color and immigrant decent. A throng of heckling on-lookers swarmed their tables and a shouting match ensued.
And when more than 1,000 students marched out of their classes to protest the war in Iraq, a band of conservative students staged a simultaneous “pro-troop” rally on the steps of Low Library, and the two groups traded fierce volleys of rhetoric.
“It could be the case that there has always been that number of Republicans,” political-science professor Robert Shapiro, a member of Columbia’s faculty for the past 22 years, said. “But now, they’ve joined the club instead of sitting on the sidelines.”
Of course, Columbia isn’t alone. Conservative groups across the country have been lining up at the gates of the Ivory Tower in the biggest numbers in nearly two decades. According to Eric Hoplin, the chairman of the College Republican National Committee, his organization has tripled in size since 1999, growing from 400 chapters to more than 1,100, and now encompasses 120,000 members.
“What happened on Sept. 11, young Americans connected to their country in a very real and important way,” Mr. Hoplin, a former chair of the Minnesota College Republican State Committee, said. “The war on terror is the No. 1 issue I hear about on campuses. We’re fighting the liberal professors who were protesters in the 1960’s and 1970’s. College students are now looking to the example set by our grandparents and saying, ‘Now it’s our turn.'”
Surveys among college students do indicate a shift. According to the latest poll from the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, 33.9 percent of 2003 college freshman said that “keeping up to date with political affairs” was an important life goal, up from a three-decade low of 28.1 percent in 2000. In 2003, 22.7 percent identified themselves as “conservatives” or “far right,” compared to only 21.3 percent in 2002, while students who described themselves as “liberal” declined from 25.3 percent to 24.2 percent.
Part of the conservatives’ growth can be attributed to a relentless recruiting campaign. At Columbia, the College Republicans staff a table on College Walk at the center of campus, handing out flyers and speaking with prospective members every Friday. They also invited Dick Morris, Bill Bennett, L. Paul Bremer III and Roger Kimball to address students. Last year, the outreach effort netted 100 new members.
And each year, right-wing organizations such as the Delaware-based Intercollegiate Studies Institute (I.S.I.), and its related publishing division, the Collegiate Network, spend upward of $9 million in supporting conservative clubs on campuses. Last year, the I.S.I. spent more than $180,000 to defray printing costs for more than 85 conservative college newspapers across the country. The Citadel at Columbia just secured an $1,800 grant from the I.S.I.
The I.S.I. also sponsors internships with the conservative media. In 2003, the I.S.I. awarded Columbia student Matthew Continetti, a history major who had penned a conservative column at the Spectator , a $28,000 grant to intern at The Weekly Standard . Following his internship, Mr. Continetti was hired full-time at the Standard and has since written five cover pieces for the magazine, most recently about John Kerry’s foreign-policy vision. Mr. Continetti has also written pieces for conservative publications including the National Review and the New York Sun.
But for now, back on campus, the Columbia Republicans will return this fall with steely determination to re-elect George W. Bush. Mr. Schmelzer, the president of the College Republicans, said the R.N.C. in New York has recharged their faith in being a core group of outsiders trying to remake the political landscape in the sheltered bubble of academia.
Or as William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and one of the founders of the neoconservative movement put it: “It’s always better to put your camp in the heart of the enemy. ”