NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—Twenty-five years since Oliver North was convicted for his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair. Twenty-three years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And yet here he is, the ever-more grizzled “host of ‘War Stories’ with Oliver North,” standing between American flags and issuing warnings about the Russian bear.
“The people of Ukraine are this very minute paying the terrible price for America’s leadership deficit disorder and the Obama organization’s utopian rush to unilateral disarmament,” says North. “That’s where we’re headed. We don’t need a head of state who guts our defenses and draws phony red lines with a pink crayon.” North pauses for the guffaws. “Yeah, I did say that.”
North’s crowd is in on the joke, and they’re too young to remember how it started. The Conservative Political Action Conference skews toward 20-somethings. The 2013 in-person straw poll found that 54 percent of attendees were younger than 25 and 74 percent were younger than 40; the crowd didn’t look any older this year.
The conference also skews libertarian, more and more every year since Ron Paul ran for president (2008) and Rand Paul went to the U.S. Senate (2010). Large-print placards around the conference center warn attendees not to distribute “campaign material.” Stretch your legs and you’ll see a half-dozen students wearing STAND WITH RAND T-shirts, bright red, decorated with silhouettes of the Brillo-haired Kentuckian.
In that same 2013 poll, CPAC-ers were asked whether their “most important goal” in politics was to “promote individual freedom” or to “secure and guarantee American safety at home and abroad.” Seventy-seven percent chose liberty. Eight percent, basically a rounding error, pushed the hawk button.
And now, Russia was starting a small war. Conservatives had been hating the Russians long before they had been Standing With Rand. All day Thursday, the thousands who packed into CPAC’s main ballroom heard their movement’s icons cry out against isolationism. They’d known foreign adventurism and intervention as Obama policies, blights on both parties, not part of the Republican Party they were rebuilding. They were being tested, and by people who claimed to know much more about how the party should defend America.
“Can you just imagine Ronald Reagan dealing with Vladimir Putin?” asks onetime UN Ambassador John Bolton, one of the only representatives of the George W. Bush administration to show at CPAC. “Reagan called a strong defense budget the ‘vital margin of safety.’ We are losing that vital margin all around the world. … Putin has a growing defense budget and ours is shrinking.”
If you’re Standing With Rand, that’s never worried you. The senator had supported the forced cuts of sequestration, encouraging his colleagues to “jettison some of the crap” in the defense budget and live with lower spending levels. If you’re, say, a 21-year-old CPAC attendee, you were born after the Soviet Union dissolved. You were 8 years old on Sept. 11, and maybe 10 for the start of the war in Iraq. You’ve never been a hawk.
And at CPAC, you’re seeing the hawks sprint back into the spotlight. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio uses his Thursday speech to rally conservatives in a global fight against “totalitarianism.” Afterward, he tells the New York Times that “there are forces within our party, there have always been in American politics, that basically say, ‘Who cares what happens everywhere else? Just mind our own business.’”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz ventures from the main conference to an alternative all-day meeting of hawks—itself, a sign of how much ground has been lost to the libertarians—and explains how he differs with Paul. Sure, the Kentucky senator was right about Syria, but the hawks were right about Iran.
“When Iran describes Israel as the Little Satan,” he says, “and America as the Great Satan, we have every interest to make sure they don’t acquire the weaponry to kill millions of Americans.”
Cruz and 42 other Republican senators had signed on to new sanctions against Iran. Paul had not.
On Friday, Paul arrived at CPAC for a full day of movement building. Around noon, he was scheduled to talk to Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren, so his advance team encourages Stand With Randers to get Paul in full view of the camera. Hassan Sheikh, 26, a law student who runs Nebraska’s branch of Young Americans for Liberty, talks about Ukraine while the shot is being blocked.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re not goading ourselves into yet another expensive adventure in a foreign country,” he says, wearing a Stand With Rand shirt over a white shirt and tie. “Our allies in Europe and Asia don’t need us the way they used to. It’s absolutely preposterous that we have more than 440 military bases all across the world. That’s just an expense that taxpayers don’t need.”