CPAC 2014: Dr. President Ben Carson vs. the “PC Police”
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—In his short career as a conservative icon, Dr. Ben Carson has traveled the traditional stations of the cross. The media, surprised by his first political speech at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast, has covered his view of gay marriage (unnatural, just as bestiality is unnatural), of Obamacare ("the worst thing to happen since slavery"), of Nazi Germany (parallels to today). This has bound the movement ever closer to Carson; Alexandra Jaffe's piece on the Draft Ben movement captures just how much.
I wandered into the CPAC exhibition hall just as Carson was wrapping a grin-and-grab for premium ticket holders. Helaina Ciaramella, a Carson fan from Staten Island, had grabbed "Ben Carson 2016" signs from the Draft Ben booth and started handing them out.
"I told him, it's his destiny to run for president," said Ciaramella. He'd take the presidency because "if Republicans win at least 17 percent of the black vote, the Democrats can't win."
Turned out that this exact line was in the Draft Ben brochure, as well as an explanation of how Herman Cain had threatened to pull 40 percent of the black vote from Obama. I was about to leave the booth when—there he was, Ben Carson sheepishly walking by and waving at the Drafters, without stopping. He was surrounded by three security guards and a filmmaker who documented his events.
Carson had two appointments—one with the Washington Times, one with National Review. The security guards blocked the entrance to both publications' booths as Carson did his exclusives. (The Times is launching a new magazine for black conservatives next week, as Carson told his audience.) He was in and out, posing for photos then speeding to his speech, standing room only.
"One of the principles of Saul Alinsky is that you make the majority think their ideology is outdated, and nobody thinks that way," Carson told the audience. The media had done all that, and lied about him, like when it claimed he had compared Obamacare to slavery.
"Of course they're not the same thing," said Carson. "Slavery is much worse. But keep in mind what happens with Obamacare," a massive transfer of power from the people to the state.
CPAC 2014: Persecuted, the Christian Persecution Drama That You’ll All Be Talking About
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—The sponsors of this year's CPAC earn the right to see their names advertised in every large room or hallway: One America, a news network announced at last year's conference with a pledge to be a "platform," not an impediment, to conservatives; Tea Party Patriots, the venerable (five years old last month) coalition of activists that's only recently launched a PAC; and the film Persecuted, a fable about a Christian preacher who's ruined by the government as part of a war on religion.
The trailer plays at every other break in the main ballroom's action.
CPAC 2014: Prison Reform and the Resurrection of Bernie Kerik
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—The rise of conservative sentiment in favor of prison reform, felon voting rights, and mandatory-minimum rollbacks has confounded the media. That's to the advantage of the conservatives themselves. The idea that the GOP and the Reaganite movements are inherently "tough on crime" has made heads turn when someone—Rand Paul, typically—contradicts it.
But the counter-revolution isn't obscure anymore. Tea Partiers and libertarians in Texas and Georgia, states now run completely by the Republican Party, have pushed their legislatures to embrace prison reform. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think tank whose Brendan Steinhauser became chairman of Sen. John Cornyn's re-election bid, did the hard lifting in that state. For forty-five minutes, to the surprise of a distractable press corps, Rick Perry joined Grover Norquist onstage to explain why prison reform was a natural cause for the right.
Perry and Norquist were the draws, but the most captivating member of the panel was Bernie Kerik—former NYC police commissioner, former nominee to run DHS, former inmate. Kerik told of a class he taught in prison, where he encouraged a fellow prisoner to get a GED. "I'm black and I'm a felon," the prisoner told him. No way was he getting a job. Conservatives had to get as outraged about this as they are by anything else that deletes a member of society.
CPAC 2014, in Out-of-Context Photos
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—One of the most helpful conversations of this CPAC (one, as you might tell, that was plagued by unreliable Internet) came when I reunited with Vernon Robinson, chairman of the committe to draft Ben Carson for president.* He urged me to read a new piece from the Sunlight Foundation, titled "Competition for Hillary." The foundation had noticed—before the media did—that Ben Carson's quasi-campaign was raising money faster than Clinton's. Robinson, a two-time candidate for Congress (he didn't win), had even paid for 2000 hotel key cards to bear the Ben Carson visage. And he was distributing T-shirts.
It's nice to notice something before the media gloms on. It's also nice to avoid the events that fit a narrative but don't actually represent a story. One (1) man arrived at CPAC to protest Chris Christie. He was constantly in the sights of reporters.
Still, as the circusy, campaign-oriented aspects of CPAC have waned, a new sort of circus has been born out of necessity. Generation Opportunity, the Koch-seeded millennial outreach group, co-sponsored a "War on Youth" booth with Ron Paul's Young Americans for Liberty. Five muscular men, marked with labels like "Federal Reserve" and "Cronyism," dressed in military garb and challenged passersby to tug-of-war and strength contests.
The National Tax Union took its inspiration from a game actually enjoyed by millennials—Cards Against Humanity.
And far less exciting organizations bid for (and won) media attention by paying a group of people to dress like Chewbacca, Boba Fett, and Stromtroopers.
*Correction, March 10, 2014: This post originally misspelled National Harbor.
CPAC2014: Mitch McConnell’s Challenger Does Six Interviews in Five Yards
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—There he was, Matt Bevin, miccing up for an interview with Tea Party News Network. The first-time candidate, the hope of the Senate Conservatives Fund and several Tea Party groups, was challenging Mitch McConnell in the Republican primary only two months away. TPNN was one of many conservative, online news organizations offering friendler-than-the-MSM interviews to candidates as they walked through CPAC.
The Bevin interview proceeded in a do-no-harm sort of way. What was a Tea Party candidate? What would stop, say, Barack Obama from pronouncing himself a Tea Party candidate? What did he think of Mitch McConnell's appearance at CPAC with a rifle?
"It reminded me of Dukakis in the tank."
Only toward the end did Bevin get a curveball, a question about the investor letter (discovered by Politico) his firm sent out, praising TARP.
Bevin would only call it a Mitch McConnell trick. "He makes lies up, tries to whip things up and create distractions," he said. "Mitch McConnell was the loudest advocate for the bailout!"
The mic came off; Bevin's handler, a Florida Tea Party activist, nudged him over to me and to Florida blogger Javier Manjarres. The Shark Tank, Manjarres' blog, is another source for informative-but-not-hostile interviews with Republicans; it's not unusual to see Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio greet him with a handshake or hug of recognition.
"You've thrust yourself into a party fight between the conservative movement in the Senate and establishment Republicans," said Manjarres. "How do you feel about that, how the establishment is bringing its weight on you?"
"People talk a lot about how this is a battle for the heart of soul of the Republican Party," said Bevin. "But it's bigger than that. What's at stake is whether this is going to be a government by and for the people."
Manjarres asked a few more questions; I asked Bevin what the landslide win of John Cornyn meant for his own race, given that he was challenging another GOP leader who'd voted to raise the debt limit.
"What did you think about the effort that was mounted against Cornyn?" asked Bevin. I didn't think much of it, I admitted. "This is a very different race. That's an apple and an orange. I'm not running a nonexistent race. I've logged 35,000 miles around the state of Kentucky talking to thousands and thousands of people."
We talked for about seven minutes; I asked about how Bevin would respond to Russia's intervention in Crimea, were he in the Senate. "When you come from a position of waffling and equivocation and weakness, you don't curry respect from the world's leaders." But would he want missile defense restored in Eastern Europe? "So much of that is contingent what the people in these places where the bases would be built have to say about it. We can't tell people uniliterally that they have to put missile bases on their land."
Satisfied, thinking I'd asked something Bevin hadn't overprepared for, I watched Bevin rush to his scheduled video interview with the Washington Times.
"He's given 150 speeches," said Bevin of McConnell. "It's like the Wizard of Oz—this all-powerful leader, and not one lick of difference to Obamacare."
The paper gave him only a few minutes; he wrapped; he walked headlong into three reporters for the Huffington Post, who started questioning him anew. What did he think of the McConnell-rifle photo op?
"It reminded me of Dukakis in the tank," he said.
The Huffington Post moved on, which allowed gay radio host Michelangelo Signorile to grab Bevin and start asking about the Kentucky Supreme Court's ruling against the state's gay marriage ban.* This was Bevin's only talk that stayed on a single topic for a length of time.
"I can't speak to what other people should do as a party or as individuals," he said, finally. "I'm just saying, the people of Kentucky are concerned about Obamacare, they're concerned about amnesty."
Bevin and his handler huddled for a second. Then they parted, and Bevin was approached for a new interview. He'd moved maybe six yards.
*Correction, March 7, 2014: This post originally misspelled Michelangelo Signorile's last name.
CPAC2014: Mike Huckabee Wants to Talk About Benghazi, Not Lewinsky
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—It was an invite-only press conference for Mike Huckabee, the once and possibly future presidential candidate. Shortly after 10:40, when he reached a small, guarded ballroom, Huckabee was met with an audience that was half conservative blogs and half the mainstream press. The conservatives asked Huckabee to talk about the GOP's economic message and reaching "independent women." The press had a few questions about Hillary Clinton.
For example: Was Huckabee at a disadvantage if Clinton ran for president in 2016?
"Would I be at a disadvantage because I know her better than anyone else?" he asked, quizzically. He didn't think he would.
CNN's Dana Bash started to ask Huckabee whether the 2012 attacks in Benghazi would be the focus of a 2016 campaign. "Get me right this time," Huckabee told Bash. "Don't tweet out."
He was referring to a month-old incident, when Bash tweeted a Huckabee line about Democrats seeing women only for their libidos. But he answered her question anyway.
"It's a rallying cry for every American who's concerned about why four Americans were murdered and we didn't send anybody in there to rescue them," Huckabee said of Benghazi.
Would it be an issue?
"God help us if it isn't."
ABC's Jeff Zeleny asked Huckabee to respond to Rand Paul, who'd been deflecting any question about Clinton or a "war on women" by calling Bill Clinton a "sexual predator." Huckabee didn't want to go there.
"Bill Clinton is not going to be on the ballot in 2016 or 2014," he said. "It's very possible that his wife will. What she said, what she did, how she has served both as a senator and a secretary of state, I think that's all fair play. I personally don't like to see us get into the personal issues of candidates, because once you go down that road it's hard to go into reverse."
Huckabee took one more question, about whether young people were growing up less socially conservative, and headed for the exits. Steve Deace, an influential Iowa conservative radio host, got right next to Huckabee and asked about 2016.
"It's not a decision I've made and it's not one I'll plan to make until we get past the 2014 elections. Am I open to it? Yeah, I've made that clear. I think it's a very different place for me than it was before. I came to the conclusion in 2012 that I could not see a pathway through the primary. I also wasn't sure it was going to be possible to unseat an incumbent president who had an incredible machine, both money and organization. The timing just wasn't good for me."
Deace wanted to follow up the question. The rest of the press was ushered away. The Iowa radio host was beckoned to follow Huckabee.
CPAC2014: Louie Gohmert Throws a Party, John Boehner’s Opponent Shows Up
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—"We paid for this food!" said Rep. Louie Gohmert. "You gotta eat it!"
It was the first evening of CPAC, and Gohmert was holding court at a party for his new political committee—the evocatively named GOH PAC. Frank Gaffney was there. Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, was there too, occasionally side-eying the reporters in the room. "Bo Snerdley," the call screener/impersonation maestro on Rush Limbaugh's show, chatted with guests and took questions about what it took to get into radio. A stream of guests snacked on mini-focaccia sandwiches and crudite, or paid $20 to start a tab at the bar.
Some of the guests were running for Congress. Gohmert ushered Niger Innis, the black conservative activist and pundit, over to a microphone. Innis had just started running in Nevada's 4th District, a new seat drawn in 2011 to elect a Democrat.
"I was asked by a media commentator, will you be joining Louie's group when you make it to Congress?" said Innis. "I said, no, I'm not joining Louie's group. I'm going to be his black Siamese twin when I get to Congress!"
Gohmert roared with laughter and hugged his pal. "I'll be in the trenches with Louie," said Innis. "I have been before."
"We have any more candidates?" asked Gohmert.
A young man named J.D. Winteregg approached the mic.
"I'm running in Ohio's 8th District against Speaker Boehner," he said.
The crowd, led by Gohmert, cheered and applauded.
"Obviously, I'm going to need help, so, thank you."
Winteregg passed the mic back to Gohmert. "Thank you," said the congressman. "All right, awesome."
The din picked up as Gohmert's guests gave short speeches—Phyllis Schlafly, Tea Party Patriots' Jenny Beth Martin. Gohmert kept to the side, bursting with emotion. He grabbed the mic back to describe what he felt.
"It takes me back to a funeral I attended at Arlington National Cemetary," said Gohmert. The crowd, urged very strongly by Snerdley, stopped muttering. Gohmert told the story of Ross McGinnis, a soldier who was on patrol in 2006 when an insurgent tossed a grenade into his humvee.* "Instead of jumping out of the humvee to save his own life, 19-year-old Ross jumped out of the hole, took the full force, gave his own life. Four people are alive today because of Ross McGinnis."
The room had fallen silent. "Nobody here will hopefully have to give their lives to save four other people. But this country is in jeopardy. If it takes an hour a week, four hours a week, we can save this country for future generations. If we do that, they will look back and call us blessed."
*Correction, March 7, 2014: This post originally misspelled Medal of Honor recipient Ross McGinnis' last name.
CPAC2014: Donald Trump, Birther Till Death
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—In the weeks since Donald Trump scrapped with BuzzFeed, and since he gave Breitbart an exclusive pack of lies about how the site and its reporter had screwed him, I've come to think it was a brilliant stunt. Well, "brilliant" might oversell it. But Trump isn't entirely ignorant about the media, and he's started to learn how the conservative movement works. Isn't it possible that he baited BuzzFeed so he could attack the site from the right?
If so, it worked. Trump got a remarkably positive response at CPAC, even though his speech was marked by his standard nativist incoherence. (Most reporters in the room mocked him for referring to "the late Jimmy Carter." Carter is not dead.) While at CPAC, he did another exclusive with Breitbart, and stopped by—deep breath here—
"Celebrating American Entrepreneurship Reception with Donald Trump, sponsored by Citizens United and Young America's Foundation."
I reached the reception long after the "crudites shooters" and mini-bratwursts were gone, but right in time for Trump to answer a question about Barack Obama's citizenship. The mogul/laughingstock insisted that "an ABC reporter, who I respect" had totally been bested by him when the question came up.
"Where do you think he was born?" said Trump, quoting himself. "Do you think he was born here? He was like, 'I don't know, I'm not sure.' When I walk down the street, I have more people screaming at me—'Don't forget the birth certificate. It's the craziest thing! I have more people that shout out their car windows—that is not an issue that has not resonated.
He went on, recalling how he'd demanded Obama's college records, offering a cash prize for them. "To me, it's one of the most interesting things that none of these colleges have turned [his records] in. I hope it's positive, because if not, we have a sham president. It could be a way of collecting $50 million and giving it to charity. Why does somebody spend $3.5 million on legal fees? Why, when he was a very young man, did he do a book and on the cover of the book, it said 'a young man from Kenya.' The next day he said it was a typo."
The last few claims weren't even true, but Trump made them out of sorrow, not anger. "Someday it'll come out," he said. "I hope it's not true."
CPAC2014: Ted Cruz and the Nightmare of Iranian EMP Attacks
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—It's a short but frigid walk from CPAC to a less scripted and more intense all-day event. This year, as they've done since at least 2010, a group of foreign policy hawks and critics of "creeping Sharia" have put on an alternative program, inviting conservatives who either aren't at the main event or being given only a little time there.
In the past, this event's usually amounted to the Center for Security Policy's Frank Gaffney reairing charges that Grover Norquist is a simp for the Muslim Brotherhood. It's more fascinating this year—Breitbart (which sponsored 2013's event) has teamed up with EMPact, a group that raises awareness of the danger of possible electromagnetic pulse attacks, to put on nine hours of national security speeches. Sen. Ted Cruz had given a pretty agreeable but rote speech at CPAC. He saved his best material for a 39-minute address at the alternative event.
"Speaking the truth speaks courage," Cruz said at the start, "and that's one thing that Frank Gaffney has an abundance of."
Cruz told a cynic's history of the Obama years, reading through the jargon the White House had used to describe various outrages. Kinetic action. Leading from behind. "These are the words of fools," said Cruz. Contrast them with the words of Ronald Reagan, which would be passed between prisoners of the Soviet state, asking each other, "Did you see what Reagan said?"
Not that Cruz was calling for interventionism.
"Are we war-weary?" asked Cruz. "As a consequence to that, does that mean we are no longer willing to defend ourselves? I think that is a profound misreading of the American people. The Republican Party—you can point to two points on the spectrum, where Republicans lie. On one side you have the views of John McCain. The other end of the spectrum, you have the views of Rand Paul. Now, with respect, my views are very much the views of Ronald Reagan, which I would suggest is a third point on the triangle."
He gave some examples. "I agree with Rand Paul that we should not engage with military conflict in Syria," Cruz said. The Obama administration had lost him when it described a strike not to achieve a long-term goal but to punish the state for contravening international law. "Tut tut, you violated international law, you're no longer welcome in our faculty lounge," snarked Cruz.
But he agreed with John McCain on Iran. "When Iran describes Israel as the Little Satan, 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 imagined a nightmare scenario in which Iran detonated a bomb over "Tel Aviv or New York or Los Angeles." Detonated here, the effects of an EMP attack could kill "tens of millions of Americans."
Tens of millions? This was an incredibly effective line in the room, which contained about 100 people, to CPAC's 11,000.
CPAC2014: Chris Christie Not Booed Offstage or Chased by Villagers
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—The semi-official media narrative leading into this CPAC was that Chris Christie—shockingly denied a speaking slot in 2013!—would show up. How would he be received? How could he talk to conservatives?
People: Christie is an excellent politician. Of course he was received well, and of course he knew how to talk to the sort of audience that would approve the demotion of atheist and gay GOP groups. (Some of their flocks showed up anyway.) Christie informed the crowd that "only twice since Roe v. Wade" had a pro-life Republican been elected statewide in New Jersey. Hint, hint—his name was Chris Christie. Conservatives, he said, had to stop "letting the media" tell them how to behave. Why, for example, some snot-nosed J-school hyena had recently asked him if he could survive in a GOP that had so many social extremists.
"We've had people like Colin Powell, Tom Ridge, and Condoleezza Rice speak at our conventions," said Christie. "When's the last time you saw a pro-life Democrat speak at their convention?" Spoiler: "Never."
Christie did nothing that would upset his audience. No foreign policy talk apart from deriding the president for "letting other countries walk all over us." No mention of his Medicaid expansion, which he's defended many times, but a generic plea for Republicans to say "what we're for."