Conservatism in America, 2014
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Last year, Sarah Palin showed up to the CPAC stage with a Super Big Gulp, a reference to the (then fading) proposal of New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg to limit the sale of sodas in his city. (It would not have applied to 7-11s.) This year:
Poor Rick Santorum. On Friday, the probably 2016 presidential candidate whom the media isn't quite sure how to cover gave a well-received, condensed version of a speech he's been giving to Republican groups. Its theme: Republicans should not, could not simply talk about "job creators" and who "built that" business. They needed a positive economic agenda; they needed to realize that government had the power to organize and persuade, just as anti-smoking laws cut down the numbers of smokers to unthinkable lows.
And then Sarah Palin closed out the conference by telling "beltway Republicans" (like her 2008 ticket partner John McCain) to back off of immigration reform because "that victory you won in 2010? You didn't build that!"
Palin's speech was a pretty typical collection of memes, alliterative insults, and sentence fragmentation, but the one thing that stuck with me was her endorsement of the theory that Ted Cruz's demand that the CR not include funding for Obamacare was itself the reason that Obamacare had become unpopular. Also, that Cruz had acted on this demand with a "filibuster.' To every pollster and (cough) beltway Republican, the two-week government shutdown was an obvious and predictable disaster, a real-time bailout of the Democrats that distracted from the absolute nadir of healthcare.gov's problems and gave the president a poll boost, and to everyone familiar with Senate rules, Cruz's marathon speech was not actually a filibuster.
It does not matter. On the activist right, the reality is closer to what Palin said.
CPAC 2014: Rand Paul Wins the Straw Poll, as Marco Rubio's Support Collapses
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- A few minutes before the CPAC 2014 presidential straw poll was released, Fox News's great political reporter Chad Pergram tweeted an error. He claimed to have the results: Ted Cruz over Rand Paul, 42-17. But he had mistakenly tweeted the Senate Conservatives Fund's numbers, released at 5:45 p.m. on a Saturday, from an online poll that few reporters had noticed.
Good on the SCF -- they took advantage of a media obsession. Pergram fixed the tweet.
Cruz wins Senate Conservative Fund straw poll for prez with 42%. Rand Paul 2nd at 17%. WI Gov Walker 3rd with 10%.— Chad Pergram (@ChadPergram) March 8, 2014
The actual CPAC straw poll was, for the fifth time, dominated by young libertarians. No surprise: 78 percent disapproved of "NSA's use of data collection." Some kind of surprise: 41 percent wanted to legalize marijuana, 21 percent wanted just medical marijuana legalized, and only 33 percent wanted it to remain illegal. That spoiled the results of the straw poll, which I've written below, parenthetically noting the results from 2013.
Rand Paul - 31% (+6)
Ted Cruz 11% (+7)
Ben Carson - 9% (+5)
Chris Christie - 8% (+1)
Rick Santorum - 7% (-1)
Marco Rubio - 6% (-17)
Paul Ryan - 3% (-3)
Rick Perry - 3% (+3)
Bobby Jindal - 2% (-1)
Condi Rice - 2% (+2)
Mike Huckabee - 2% (+2)
Sarah Palin - 2% (-3)
Paul's team was eager to win that spokesman Sergio Gor materialized in the press rows before the results had been read in full, distributing a statement from RANDPAC: "I am grateful to all of the attendees who stood with me." The statement would have worked had Paul won or lost.
CPAC 2014 and the Chamber of Echoes
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- It's actually quite difficult to be at CPAC and keep aware of how CPAC is being covered outside. Apparently Donald Trump's speech was worth wire stories, and Michele Bachmann's slap at Hillary Clinton went viral. Apparently, too, this video of a South Dakota state legislator is zooming around the left, provoking confusion.
"Mmm, mmm, mmm?" What does that mean? Why, it's a reference to this 2009 video of schoolchildren learning a song in which the name of Jesus Christ has been swapped out for the name of "Barack Hussein Obama." It got around because it was 1) creepy and 2) "mmm mmm mmm" sounded weird.
A small event, but sort of demonstrative of how ideas can rocket back and forth within a movement and get no traction outside it. The world at large has forgotten that Barack Obama once referred to "57 states" -- that was in 2008 -- but Grover Norquist mentioned that he had a few states left to visit "to get to 57," and it killed.
CPAC 2014: Dr. President Ben Carson versus 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: 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 prison reform, felon voting rights, and mandatory minimums 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 HABRBOR, 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.
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.