CPAC: The opening of the conservative conference
The largest annual gathering of Republican activists began in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday with appearances by rival presidential hopefuls offering their party starkly different paths back to prominence — and diagnoses of what ails it — after last fall's demoralizing losses.
"We don't need any new ideas," Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida told a room packed with cheering grass-roots activists, anticipating what he predicted would be liberal critiques of his remarks. "The idea is called America, and it still works."
Speaking immediately after him, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky declared, "The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered." A "new GOP," he said, "will need to embrace liberty in both the economic and the personal sphere."
The yearly assembly of the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, is a showcase of the Republican Party's top presidential prospects, whose reception before a crowd of critical, future primary voters and volunteers is watched carefully by party leaders, donors and news media handicappers.
The conclave, held by the American Conservative Union, is typically at its least consequential four years before the next presidential campaign. But this year it has taken on more significance as Republicans undertake examinations of how to improve their prospects in 2014 and 2016 and activists seek new reasons for optimism at the start of President Barack Obama's second term.
"Where I live it's a pretty conservative area," said Janet Crow, a Tea Party activist from Conway, Ark. "And we are concerned about the future of where the country's going."
Antipathy for Obama and his agenda appeared to be a baseline requirement for entree to the speakers' list at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center here.
Two Republican governors were left off the guest list after perceived ideological breaches: Chris Christie of New Jersey, who drew conservative ire for embracing Obama after Hurricane Sandy and recently accepted federal money for an extension of Medicaid, and Bob McDonnell of Virginia, a star of last year's gathering who recently backed a road improvement program that included tax increases.
Al Cardenas, the Conservative Union president, told reporters that organizers concluded that Christie had not earned a spot in the "all star" program because of "decisions he made," but that he could be invited next year. Cardenas dismissed the notion that McDonnell's absence was based on ideological considerations.
Paul and Rubio, the most anticipated speakers on Thursday, displayed differences as bare as those within the party at large. Rubio called for a reassertion of the traditional, Reagan-era values of limited government at home while Paul called for a more libertarian approach that would shrink America's role in the world.
Rubio, whose Cuban-American heritage is a perceived strength after the party's huge losses last year among Hispanic voters, did not dwell on his proposals to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, which include a path to citizenship for those here illegally. (The crowd's reaction to the general notion of a road to citizenship for illegal immigrants seemed to range from lukewarm to hostile.)
Instead, Rubio offered a new defense of the party's longstanding strain of social conservatism, saying that "just because I believe states should have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot."
In contrast, Paul gave a nod to easing penalties for illegal drug use, which is anathema to many traditional, law-and-order Republicans but is popular among younger voters the party has struggled to reach.
"Ask the Facebook generation whether we should put a kid in jail for the nonviolent crime of drug use and you'll hear a resounding 'No,'" said Paul, who arrived on the stage to Metallica's "Enter Sandman," adding a sense of youth to his appearance (although the song is more than 20 years old).
He appeared to take a jab at the Republican's 2008 presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who had indirectly referred to Paul and his like-minded colleagues as "wacko birds" for their filibuster against Obama's CIA director, John O. Brennan.
Paul said the party had become "stale and moss-covered," then added archly, "I don't think we need to name any names, do we?"
CPAC: Day 2
Mitt Romney came to the conservatives' yearly retreat here Friday and urged them to "make sure that we learn from my mistakes, and from our mistakes."
But what those lessons are, and what should be done about them, has been a matter of deep disagreement at the gathering. And that split over the lessons of the 2012 presidential election reflected an intensifying debate within the Republican Party: whether to change with the times to expand their appeal or reject pressure for moderation in the belief that only an ideologically pure message will rally voters.
Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, an early, potential presidential contender in 2016, made one of the most imploring, reflective speeches of the gathering by saying, "Never again can the Republican Party simply write off entire segments of our society because we assume our principles have limited appeal." It was an apparent, implicit rebuke of Romney's 2012 presidential campaign.
"Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker," Bush said.
In the same way, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, an Indian-American, called on his party to "recalibrate our conservative compass" by moving beyond Washington-based budget fights.
But Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky declared, "I'm a little tired of the hand wringing," then added a dose of tough love: "If you get your tail whipped, you don't whine about it. You stand up, and you punch back."
And former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, addressing "those in our movement who want to abandon our moral underpinnings so we can win," asked, with a touch of anger, "What does it profit a movement to gain the country and lose its own soul?"
Yet chatter throughout the convention hall revolved around the announcement by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, that he had changed his mind about one such moral underpinning, opposition to same-sex marriage, which he said he now supports in part because one of his sons is gay.
The cavalcade of conservatives spoke at an event that was part political seminar and part political circus.
Mingling in the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center here for the gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC, were Donald Trump with his trademark full hair; a man in a giant fluffy Benjamin Franklin head; and radio hosts selling books, including one that attacked the party strategist Karl Rove with a cover emblazoned with three letters frequently used as shorthand for a profanity-laced question.
Perhaps only at this gathering could Rove, who as much as anyone since President Ronald Reagan helped expand the clout of social conservatives in the party, be cast as unreliable — partly a function of his political organization's effort to be more pragmatic in backing candidates.
McConnell, in his remarks, called for unity in the form of continued opposition to President Barack Obama's health care law, which he vowed to overturn, and a strong Republican ticket in 2016, when he said the Democrats would field a ticket reminiscent of the 1980s sitcom "Golden Girls," about four older women sharing a home in Miami. He was referring, apparently, to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, 65, and Vice President Joe Biden, 70. McConnell is 71.
In the aftermath of successive defeats in presidential campaigns, the sense of conservatives turning on one another was palpable. Romney, for example, said his party should look to its governors for ways forward, particularly those from "the blue and purple states, like Bob McDonnell, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Susana Martinez, Chris Christie and Brian Sandoval."
But two on that list — McDonnell of Virginia and Christie of New Jersey — were not invited to this year's gathering after alienating some conservatives, McDonnell for endorsing a tax increase for a roads program and Christie for criticizing his party's leadership and working at times with Obama and the Democrats.
Romney did not get into specifics in his remarks regarding what he thought his mistakes had been, and made no mention of his much-maligned statement that "47 percent" of Americans were overdependent on government. But in the immediate weeks after Romney's loss, Republicans openly lamented how poorly he — and they as a group — had performed among Hispanics as well as other parts of the electorate.
Bush, who recently pulled back somewhat in his support for an outright "path to citizenship" for illegal immigrants, seemed to go the furthest in at least touching on the subject of immigration.
"As a nation, if we get immigration right, we're going to stay young," Bush said. "I'm here to tell you there is no 'us' or 'them.' The face of the Republican Party needs to be the face of every American, and we need to be the party of inclusion and acceptance."
With Portman's announcement about his new support for same-sex marriage, "inclusion and acceptance" took on new meaning here.
Younger conservative attendees, especially fans of the libertarian-leaning senator of Kentucky, Rand Paul, said in interviews that it was time for the party to move away from its opposition to same-sex weddings and to give up on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
"The Constitution doesn't give us the right to legislate on that," said Fiona Moody, a college Republican leader at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
But Larry Helminiak, the vice chairman of the Republican Central Committee of Carroll County, Md., said Portman's view was still very much in the minority of the party and would remain that way. "There's not a shot in hell it's going to be pro-gay marriage," he said of his party.
CPAC: Day 3
Sarah Palin's appearances no longer inspire speculation about her presidential aspirations, but her reception at a large gathering of conservatives on Saturday underscored her enduring popularity with the right. In a speech here, she offered zingers for the Republican base but also a strenuous defense of her Tea Party-inspired friends who are challenging the Republican establishment.In a sweeping pep talk at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Palin, a former governor of Alaska and Republican vice-presidential nominee, attacked the president from the opposing party and the Beltway Republican groups that are promoting traditional candidates over insurgents in Republican primaries.
"More background checks?" she said, railing against new gun control proposals offered by Democrats in Congress. "Dandy idea, Mr. President. Should've started with yours." Lines like that frequently brought the crowd to its feet.
Despite her exit from electoral politics after the 2008 presidential election during which she was John McCain's vice-presidential pick, Palin has secured an enduring type of influence within the conservative movement. Many of its upstart office holders credit her with their success. They include Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who came out to introduce Palin hours before he was scheduled to deliver the keynote address.
"She can pick winners," said Cruz, who beat the state's lieutenant governor in a primary last year. "I would not be in the U.S. Senate today if it were not for Gov. Sarah Palin."
Acknowledging that "we can't just ignore that we lost a big election," Palin said that "the last thing we need is Washington, D.C., vetting more candidates."
In an apparent reference to Karl Rove, who established the Conservative Victory Fund to oppose insurgent primary candidates, she added, "The architects can head on back to â(euro) ⅛" Jeers from the crowd drowned out her proposed destination.
Palin's name is one of nearly two dozen appearing on a presidential straw poll that serves as an early measure of enthusiasm in the Republican contest.
Speaking before Palin was a Republican, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who had offered one of the party's success stories from 2012. Walker, who remains the governor after beating back a union-driven recall campaign, spoke about political lessons from his state that could be applied nationally. Yet his suggestions were more modest in scope than those offered by other potential 2016 candidates, focusing more on how to reframe union fights than on how to fundamentally change the perception of the party.
Entitlement reform, Walker said, should be cast as "moving people from government dependence to true independence."
He added, to raucous applause, "It's why we take off work on the 4th of July, not the 15th of April."
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and Rep. Michele Bachmann, both of whom vied for the Republican nomination in 2012, also had their 15 minutes. Gingrich said the Republican-controlled House "could be having a hearing every week on the future." Using props — a candle and an incandescent light bulb — Gingrich imagined that if Thomas Edison's technology emerged today, liberals would try to block the electric bulb, while subsidizing candles for the poor.
He was followed by Bachmann, who has championed the incandescent bulb, introducing a bill to block a planned phaseout of that technology in favor of compact fluorescent lights. On Saturday, she characterized conservatives as a "growing movement of people who care about all Americans." She cited as evidence their support for $2-a-gallon gasoline and for preserving Second Amendment rights for women.
CPAC: Who wasn't there
Two Republican governors were left off the guest list after perceived ideological breaches: Chris Christie of New Jersey, who drew conservative ire for embracing Obama after Hurricane Sandy and recently accepted federal money for an extension of Medicaid, and Bob McDonnell of Virginia, a star of last year’s gathering who recently backed a road improvement program that included tax increases.
Al Cardenas, the Conservative Union president, told reporters that organizers concluded that Christie had not earned a spot in the “all star” program because of “decisions he made,” but that he could be invited next year. Cardenas dismissed the notion that McDonnell’s absence was based on ideological considerations.
CPAC: 2016 straw poll
Sen. Rand Paul won the 2013 Washington Times-CPAC presidential preference straw poll Saturday, edging Sen. Marco Rubio as the top vote-getter of the 2016 presidential hopefuls, 25-23 percent. Mitt Romney won the conference’s last poll one year ago, when he described himself as “severely conservative.” There were 23 candidates in the unofficial poll.
See The Washington Times' full coverage of its straw poll at bit.ly/YEgPzD.
CPAC analysis: The GOP's identity crisis
Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. They're losing among women, voters under 30, and among Hispanic, African-American and Asian voters by huge margins. Their white, male base represents an ever-shrinking piece of the electorate.
But as Republican leaders and activists grapple with the GOP's identity and path forward, conservatives are increasingly pushing back on the notion that the party must adjust its positions to remain viable.
What's really needed, say those gathered this week for the Conservative Political Action Conference, is a more positive articulation of the conservative message so it has broader appeal.
"We need to draw into our party people from every corner of society because conservative principles, and not liberal dogma, best reflect the ideals that made this nation great. We should be united in the principle that everyone should be given the opportunity to rise to the top, to raise a family, and to be free," former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Friday night in the most substantive speech of the three-day event.
"The popular media narrative is that this country has shifted away from conservative ideals, as evidenced by the last two presidential elections," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said. "That might be true, if Republicans had actually nominated conservative candidates in 2008 and 2012."
The American Conservative Union's annual CPAC gathering for decades has been a haven for highlighting conservative ideas and thinkers, and invariably offers fiery, red meat conservative speeches. This year's CPAC, coming after President Barack Obama's comfortable re-election, is more listless and often featured defensiveness about suggestions that the party's agenda is contributing to its struggles with national elections.
Sen. Marco Rubio's biggest applause line Thursday: "We don't need a new idea. There is an idea, the idea is called America, and it still works."
Still, Rubio echoed other featured speakers in suggesting the GOP must show it is on the side of middle class and struggling Americans — in a way Mitt Romney failed to do.
Mingling among the book-signers, NRA and anti-abortion booths, and occasional fellows dressed in colonial militiaman garb, activists agreed the party must connect with everyday Americans and reach a more diverse group of voters.
"We need to do more outreach to the Latino and the black community. We were pretty silent on it the last election," said Arne Owens, 59, of Richmond, Va. "But I do think we need to re-emphasize the core conservative message, talk about pocketbook issues, the free market and families. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, 'no pale pastels.' Let's have some bright colors that show the contrast, that show the difference."
American Conservative Union president Al Cardenas argues that Republicans need to stand firm on conservative principles, but also "recruit competent, eloquent people, which we haven't done a good job of in the past, and you've got to reach out to all Americans, which we haven't done in the past."
He added, "Diluting our principles for the sake of expanding our tent is the surest way to lose in the future."
One area the party is trying to change is on immigration, shedding harsh rhetoric of the last few years and embracing changes that go beyond border enforcement.
"Every single month for the next 20 years, 50,000 Hispanic youngsters will turn 18 years old and become eligible to vote," Republican pollster Whit Ayres said during a panel discussion. "People can complain about it, they can wring their hands about it, they can have angst about it. But the one thing they can't do about it, is change it. That is the America that is coming and if we hope to have a vibrant center-right coalition, it sure better reach out aggressively."
CPAC organizers and virtually all speakers were on the same page in embracing legal status for undocumented immigrants, but their efforts to expand the GOP tent only go so far.
"For those in our movement who want to abandon our country's moral underpinning so we can win, permit me to paraphrase a great teacher and ask, 'What does it profit a movement to gain the country and lose its own soul?'?" said former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
CPAC did not invite two of the most popular Republican governors, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bob McDonnell of Virginia, because of qualms about their fiscal conservatism. And for the second year in a row, CPAC refused to allow the gay Republican group GOProud as a sponsor.
"How do we expect anyone to listen to anything else we have to say if they think that conservatives hate their gay family members and friends," said GOProud president Jimmy LaSaliva.
Evelyn Weinstein, 19, a college student in New Hampshire, agreed with holding firm to fiscal conservatism and small government but said, "The whole social conservatism segment of the party needs to get completely thrown out. .?.?. With the way my generation is starting to look at social issues, moving forward the Republican Party is just not going to survive any elections if it doesn't change."
GOP leaders have long said a strong party is held up by three pillars: fiscal conservatism, social conservatism and strong national defense.
More and more Republicans, however, are second-guessing party orthodoxy on social issues and national security.
But on Capitol Hill, most Republican leaders are happy to make old arguments.
In recent days Senate Republicans pushed an amendment to de-fund Obamacare and the House GOP rallied around a re-introduced version of Rep. Paul Ryan's austere budget blueprint, which Democrats used as a cudgel in the elections.
"Much of the reason Barack Obama got elected president, initially, is because too many Republicans failed to stand for principle," newly elected Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "One of the most encouraging things we're seeing is a new generation of leaders stepping forward and standing for liberty, standing for growth, standing for opportunity."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal on Friday argued that the GOP is sending the wrong message to voters by fixating on the federal budget and should not become "the party of austerity."
"This obsession with zeroes has everyone in our party focused on what? The government," he said. "By obsessing with zeroes on the budget spreadsheet, we send a not-so-subtle signal that the focus of our economy is the phony economy of Washington, D.C., instead of the real economy out in Billings or in Baton Rouge."