In a gargantuan Maryland hotel on the banks of the Potomac River, the CPAC conference is at once a conservative echo chamber, bustling bazaar, and media marketplace.
It is a hermetically sealed environment where Ronald Reagan is praised; Jimmy Carter is reviled; and one Republican speaker, Rep. Louie Gohmert, is still arguing that America could have won the Vietnam War.
The three-day extravaganza, which kicked off Thursday morning, has no power to pass laws or set agendas. But the gathering, staged by the American Conservative Union, has become the place to be, if only because everyone else on the right is here.
Well, not everyone. Two Republican governors, New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, were notably snubbed because they didn’t pass some ideological purity test.
But one GOP lawmaker, Raúl Labrador of Idaho, was introduced to applause for being the first congressman to call for Attorney General Eric Holder to resign.
If anyone expected a case of collective depression at this year’s CPAC, given that Barack Obama has just cruised to a second term, it was not evident here. The tone was set early when Republican pollster Whit Ayers declared that “we are in an epic struggle against secular socialism.”
Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, a Tea Party favorite, warned that the government has “exploded out of control” and the U.S. could “follow Greece into bankruptcy.”
“The American people are with us,” Toomey said. “They understand that you can’t borrow and spend your way to prosperity.”
Toomey spoke of Reagan’s “golden age.” Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa invoked Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.”
Reagan left office nearly a quarter century ago. So CPAC’s challenge is to figure out a conservative strategy for 2013.
Ayers noted that the Republicans have “lost five of the last six popular votes for president.” But, he said, “we are only one candidate and one election away from resurrection.”
Out in the crowded hallway, broadcasting on the online Tea Party News Network, founder Scottie Hughes injected a note of realism.
“We realize that we got our butts kicked,” said Hughes, who is a fan of Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz. “It was our own Republicans’ fault that we lost,” she added. “We keep putting up moderates.”