Continuing on some of  Phil’s thoughts about CPAC yesterday, I’d like to say, too, that there has been a subtle shift in mood at this year’s conservative confab, and it isn’t unwelcome. A touch more more think thank than GOP pep rally (save for the usual cringe-inducing moments, like Newt Gingrich’s purposely belabored 10 minute walk to the podium through a throng of groping groupies to the soundtrack of “Eye of the Tiger” this afternoon. The security detail was a nice touch).

Gone are the posters of George W in his cowboy hat and/or flight suit (though there is no getting away from Sarah Palin and the “Luce Girl” pinups).There seems to be plenty of books about liberty throughout the main exhibit hall. The best books, it can be argued, can be found at the American Conservative Defense Alliance/TAC table, which is experiencing more traffic than usual. As Phil mentioned before, Ron Paul and the Campaign for Liberty are getting a much warmer reception than the wholesale rejection these conservatives gave them last year.

But therein lies the fly in the ointment, in what might have been — from the perspective of a space alien who just landed in Washington for this annual pilgrimage –  a fairly innocuous political ritual of young, eager conservatives and movement activists finding their way out of the wilderness of hubris and hypocrisy in Washington.

For all of the renewed talk of limited government, freedom, civil liberties, personal responsibility, states’ rights, the U.S Constitution and William F. Buckley Jr., there was no avoiding the underlying cynicism, the niggling feeling that this sudden burst of purity, this potent desire to “return to our roots,” to “take back our movement,” wouldn’t have happened if a Democrat weren’t in the Speaker’s chair, or a “socialist” in the White House for the first time in eight years.

It is unfair, of course, to accuse everyone of such thinness and superficiality — it is the ignorance of such sweeping, cliched generalizations that turns me off the most about these gatherings. But the fact that many of the speakers — and I listened to a lot — have relied so heavily on relentlessly shopworn, ad hominem attacks, crude stereotypes (at one point a speaker asked, regarding Nancy Pelosi, “guys, how would you like to be married to that?”) and demagoguery (lots of talk about the Socialist Revolution at the door, hammers and sickles and pitchforks, oh my), indicates a lot more self-reflection needs to happen. But right now, red meat still rules. And it tends to spoil. Fast.

At least a few speakers — Bay Buchanan and former Michigan Republican Party chief Saul Anuzis on Thursday come to mind — cut through the bull and told the audience they all needed to accept responsibility for the awesome defeats of 2006 and 2008, and for losing the best chance they had for advancing the conservative agenda they’ve been rallying around year after year after year at CPAC.

Lastly, there seemed to be an awful lot of giddiness over Obama’s federal budget blueprint, and maybe too much obvious relief that they all had an ample — and safe — target just in time for the event. Just like Rush Limbaugh (he’s speaking Saturday) seems to have much more zip in his zingers now that his party is out of power. Smells like opportunity — the very opportunism that Charles Krauthammer accuses Obama of in today’s column.  Though opportunities can be constructive, one has to be constructive to make it work. I’m afraid as far as real opportunities go, there was a lot of missed ones at CPAC over the last two days, among some real glimmers of light.