By Danny R. Johnson
WASHINGTON–Political conferences, like the annual Academy Awards Oscars show in Hollywood, is sometimes judged by the star power of their guest lists. By that standard, the 11,000 delegates who gathered in Washington in the middle of an unusual calm winter week (February 10-13) for the 38th Annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) had every reason to congratulate themselves for having arranged the hottest party in town, and did so with a lot of hullabaloo.
The procession of CPAC’s podium guests were not headed by former Republican presidents of the U.S., who at one time addressed the assembly for each of the last five years of President George W. Bush’s eight-year reign over the White House. It was graced by former Vice President Dick Cheney, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich–and just about anyone who is even tempted by a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.
David Keene, chairperson of the American Conservative Union Board of Directors and CPAC Chair: “We had over 75 major sponsors and 82 conservative organizations who rented space in our huge exhibit hall. The conservative momentum is still running high since our victories in the midterm 2010 election.”
While the parade of speakers preached to the converted about the threat of big government and the overreaches of Obamacare, there was support for individual liberties and states’ rights; In addition, the overall theme of the three-day meeting emphasized the development of a younger generation of conservatives.
Republicans took turns lambasting Obama
U.S. Congresswoman Bachmann kicked off the conservative movement’s biggest annual party in Washington by exhorting all conservatives – those focused on fiscal, social and natural security issues – to come together to continue Republican electoral gains in 2012.
She declared that conservative unity is the only way to win what she called the “Triple Crown” next year – retaining the House of Representatives, regaining Republican control of the U.S. Senate and relegating President Barach Obama to a single term.
“I believe in the three-legged stool,” she said. “I believe in this coalition that is our winning combination. I believe you are incredibly talented. I believe you are motivated for 2012. I believe we can do this.”
Donald Trump said that he would announce whether he would run for president by June 2011. Nevertheless, while he weighs his options, Trump went on the attack.
Speaking to a packed and rowdy room that was decidedly mixed about Trump’s presence at the conference (boos were scattered before, during and after the speech), Trump pointed to his successful business record.
Trump also had some choice words for the field of potential Republican candidates, saying he wishes there was a clear choice in the field right now. When supporters of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) suggested their candidate was the man, Trump was blunt.
“Ron Paul cannot get elected,” he said. After a chorus of boos, Trump did not back down, repeating the statement while saying that he likes Paul.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney opened his CPAC speech with a sharp attack on President Obama, accusing the president of dithering on the economy and naiveté on foreign policy.
“Let me make this very clear,” he said. “If I decide to run for president, it sure won’t take me two years to wake up to the job crisis threatening America. Moreover, I will not be asking Timothy Geithner how the economy works – or Larry Summers how to start a business. I know.”
Notably absent from the speech was any reference to health care. But there were lots of jokes: “Saul Alinsky is out, Jeffrey Immelt is in,” … “Obama went from ‘Change you can believe in’ to ‘Can you believe this change?'” … “What we’re watching is not Brave New World… it’s Groundhog Day” … Obama’s response to unemployment is “‘Let them eat organic cake.'”
Young Ron Paul supporters to the rescue
Texas Republican Congressman, Ron Paul, and his young supporters were out in full force. The huge 12,000 square feet conference ballroom, where all the action was located, was swamped with young white and energetic conference delegates who came from all over the country. These young Republicans were instrumental in having permanently changed the national agenda to make the conservative voice not just relevant but dominant in the 2010 midterm election. CPAC conference officials estimated that 54% of the 11,000 delegates were between the ages of 18-28. Ron Paul was in front of a packed crowd filled with young fans; Rep. Paul sought to connect his long career to last year’s Republican wave.”The revolution is continuing,” Paul declared, making special note of one 2010 win: His son, Rand Paul’s victory in the Kentucky Senate race.
Once he got going, though, Paul made it clear that he does not agree with Republican leadership on everything.
“The PATRIOT Act is literally the destruction of the Fourth Amendment,” he declared, to huge applause. “I’m still against foreign aid — for everybody.” On spending cuts, he lamented,” Half the people in this room won’t cut one penny from the military.”
The most jarring divergence from other major CPAC speakers came when Paul addressed “American exceptionalism,” a popular theme of conference speakers.
“We’re certainly living in an exceptional country,” he said, “but I think where we go astray on exceptionalism … is when we go around the world trying to force people to be like us … force doesn’t work.” He dismissed the “so-called neoconservatives” who think we can democratize other countries.
The youngish crowd was largely on Paul’s side — he got multiple standing ovations. Many of the audience members were there specifically for him; there were long lines to get out of the auditorium when the speech ended. A swarm of fans following him for a book signing.
Ron Paul emerged victorious in CPAC’s annual presidential straw poll, the second straight year that the libertarian-leaning Texas Congressman has won the vote.
Paul took 30 percent while former Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.) placed second with 23 percent. No other candidate received double-digit support.
3,742 people — roughly a third of total CPAC attendees — cast votes.
Paul, who ran for president in 2008, is weighing another bid in 2012. He is considered a considerable long shot despite his loyal following among young people who are drawn to his less government messaging.
The history of CPAC straw poll winners affirms the limits of using it as a prognosticator of much of anything.
Romney won the CPAC straw vote in 2007, 2008 and 2009 but was unable to beat out Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) for the GOP presidential nod.
Egyptian uprising conspicuously absent from most speeches
While most Republican presidential hopefuls speaking at CPAC barely mentioned the situation in Egypt, former U.N. Ambassador, John Bolton, devoted nearly his entire speech to it.
Bolton, who is toying with the idea of a presidential campaign, filled a foreign policy void at the conference. Many speakers attacked President Barack Obama by saying he was weak in the face of our enemies. However, few gave detailed critiques of the president’s foreign policy. Only Ron Paul devoted much time to Egypt, and his isolationist message is outside the Republican mainstream.
In the wake of Ron Paul’s divisive straw poll win — there were loud cheers competing with even louder boos — Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) gave a red meat speech that drew the crowd together.
Like many other CPAC speakers, West invoked President Lincoln — his name may have been dropped more than Reagan’s — in the context of facing up to responsibility. He called for fiscal discipline — “start looking at every government program and agency created in the past ten years” for cuts, and he singled out the EPA in particular for slashing.
On Egypt, West said he “applaud[s] the flame of freedom finding its way into this Arab nation,” but compared the situation to Iran after the revolution or Afghanistan at the rise of the Taliban. He called for “peace through vigilance” without “political correctness,” which “has no place in our national security strategy.”
On abortion, he pledged to “defend and honor the unborn.” He declared, “there is a definitive American culture.”
In short, there was nothing new in what West said — but his speech hit all the most resonant notes, and the crowd was on its feet half the time.
Among Republicans with an eye on the top of the 2012 presidential ticket, the only prominent absentee was former 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, who declined to appear because she had a scheduling conflict. Mike Huckabee was also missing in action due to a trip to Israel. Typically, CPAC conferences attract mostly a majority of white Republican voters, while African-Americans, Asians, Native-Americans and Latinos are very few in attendance.
Danny R. Johnson is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.