Ever been to a wedding or family reunion where the event starts out reasonably genteel, then, as the hours roll by and the attendees start to get tired and/or drunk, things start to get weirder and rowdier? The opening day of CPAC was a lot like that. Plus firearms.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. How can CPAC not be gonzo from the opening bell? This isn’t some weak-tea of a party convention, where pols have to fret about whether they’re going to scare off voters in the mushy middle. Neither is it some bush-league Johnny-come-lately gathering with C-list speakers and a shoe-string budget. No. This is the granddaddy of conservative conclaves, a multi-day, big-budget ideological extravaganza put on by and for the unabashedly conservative wing of the Republican Party. This is a place where Byron York is a celebrity, Andrew Breitbart a fallen hero, and Ronald Reagan a God. Cheesecake photos of Ann Coulter abound, and everywhere you look the NRA is urging you to “Stand and Fight!”
To be sure, there was much fun to be had early on. Outside the massive ballroom where most of the speechifying was taking place, the hallways of the Gaylord Convention Center were hopping. The gasbags on radio row were up and running. Print and TV reporters roamed the hallways, snatching up attendees for impromptu interviews on everything from fetal viability to global warming to Benghazi. Unlike your average Tea Party affair, CPAC draws scads of young folks, many of them sporting bowties, some of them in American-flag-print shorts, and at least one sporting a sky-high orange-and-green Mohawk. Despite the prohibition on official campaign paraphernalia, budding young political operatives handed out buttons and stickers proclaiming, “Stand with Rand” or “Cruz Crew.” Some guy was striding around on super-tall stilts, carrying a “Reagan for President sign.” His female counterpart had no signage, but was made up like a sexy Uncle Sam.
The exhibition hall downstairs featured every bit of right-wing goodness you could hope for, with booths by longtime players and scrappy newcomers alike: the Heritage Foundation, AEI, the 2nd Amendment Foundation, the National Taxpayers Union, Regnery Publishing, the Weekly Standard, National Review, Regent University, the Ayn Rand Institute, proenglish.org, the Charles Koch Institute, Accuracy In Media, The Blaze. Tchotchkes ranged from tote bags to candy to bumper stickers to a bright red T-shirt cheekily announcing, “I only sleep with Republicans.” The Sportsman Channel was touting its upcoming new series, “Amazing America with Sarah Palin.” (Airs April 2014!) The anti-tax HowMoneyWalks.com was drawing attention with a not-entirely-intuitive Star Wars theme. (Not that one really needs a reason to dress up like Chewbacca or a Storm Trooper.) Another particularly lively booth was by WarOnYouth.com, whose primary cause was not immediately evident, but which was staffed with a dozen or so young people decked out in military-green T-shirts and bandanas. At one point, they held a noisy tug-of-war with a giant rope in the middle of the exhibit hall. And, of course, the NRA had a vibrant presence, with multiple booths, the hands-down best of which featured a virtual shooting gallery that let folks test their rifle skills at 10, 25, and 50 yards. There was a bookstore in the back, a guy playing the guitar at a stage near the front, sofas and closed-circuit TVs scattered about, and a photo-tainment booth at which giddy attendees could get their pictures taken in funny hats.
Even in the midst of all the merriment, however, were reminders of the ongoing tensions within conservatism. In between display booths, two guys were handing out pamphlets explaining “Why GOProud Does Not Belong at CPAC.” Bottom line: embracing the gay-rights agenda will destroy “the conservative movement’s three-legged stool” of “fiscal,” “social,” and “defense” conservatives. (The brochure helpfully featured an illustration of a guy in a blue suit precariously perched atop a “conservative” stool as a ferocious, rainbow-hued beaver gnawed at the “social” leg of the stool.) Throughout the day, you would overhear chit-chat about the ongoing tug-of-war between libertarians and social conservatives. (“We’re in a war within our own party!” one CPAC straw-poll worker marveled to a student attendee.) Standing in line for coffee, Joey Kalmin, head of the University of Maryland student Republicans, fretted to me that he wasn’t even sure he should be at the convention, given that he didn’t agree with social conservatives on so many key issues.
Indeed, addressing this internal uncertainty and discord seemed to be on the mind of many of the morning’s A-list speakers. Taking the stage around 9:30, Rep. Paul Ryan assured the crowd that all of the “creative tension” roiling the GOP these days is a good thing. We’re the party of ideas, he cheered. “The Republican party is where the action is!” A little before noon, Chris Christie, in full-throttle let-daddy-give-it-to-you-straight mode, similarly lectured the crowd: “We’ve got to start talking about what we’re for and not just what we’re against. And the reason for that is very simple,” he explained. “Our ideas are better than their ideas!” This, as it happens, is the very same message that Sen. Mike Lee, who spoke a half hour after Christie, has been test-driving for a couple of months now—along with the corollary that the party needs to work on being a little more Pope Francis and a little less Torquemada: “We as conservatives have got to be far more engaged in finding converts than discarding heretics!”
This is not to suggest that there wasn’t much, much, much slamming of the enemy: President Obama, Harry Reid, Obamacare, the media, the IRS, Obamacare, Hillary Clinton, Obamacare, unions, Big Government. (Did I mention Obamacare?) Marco Rubio, strutting his foreign policy stuff, went on at length about the administration’s global failures. So did Bushie-turned-AEI-fellow John Bolton. (God, I love that mustache!) Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, talking education reform, expressed dismay that the Department of Justice is opposing his state’s school-voucher program. Playing to the crowd, Jindal compared Attorney General Eric Holder to Alabama’s segregationist-loving former Gov. George Wallace: “We’ve got Eric Holder and the Department of Justice trying to stand in the schoolhouse door to prevent minority kids, low-income kids, kids who haven’t had access to a great education, the chance to go to better schools.” Well played, Governor: Nothing tickles conservatives more than being assured that Democrats are the party of intolerant racists.
I take that back. The one thing that may have tickled them more was when Mitch McConnell showed up on stage brandishing a rifle. (It was a gift for colleague Tom Coburn, who is retiring this year because of health problems.) The crowd was delighted. Alas, that was pretty much all that McConnell did that delighted them, because a) everyone at CPAC knows the minority leader increasingly loathes the right-wing of the party and is desperately smooching their backsides only because of that unfortunate primary battle brewing back in Kentucky, and b) McConnell is about as charismatic as a box of stale prunes.
But these are pretty much the standard antics you’d expect at CPAC. And, for the most part, the major speakers stayed even keeled and non hysterical. Every now and again, you got the sneaking suspicion that party leaders had all gotten the same memo, generated in the bowels of some unseen uberconsultant’s office, warning that the party needs to stop being seen as so negative and critical and scary and mean and anti-everything.
Then came the afternoon entertainment. Perhaps in an effort to keep folks awake post-lunch, Wayne LaPierre and Donald Trump were the 1-2 closing punch of the day’s orations. The NRA’s always electrifying VP/CEO went first, delivering precisely the kind of high-velocity, armor-piercing, fear-mongering, the-gang-bangers-and-terrorists-are-coming-for-your-children-and-the-government-is-coming-for-your-guns call to arms for which he has become famous. By the end of his relatively lengthy address, Pierre had drawn a straight line between supporting the NRA and loving freedom. “Joining the NRA,” he told the crowd, “is how you resist. It’s how you tell the world that you’re going to fight and you’re going to protect everything you care about: trust, honor, dignity, civic duty, courtesy, kindness, the liberty to live our lives and believe as we choose, to be as accepted as we are accepting of others, freedom that only comes through the second amendment and the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution!” Then he made everyone stand up who wants to save this country and fight for freedom. If only Charlton Heston had been there to shriek something about overthrowing our ape overlords.
Finally, there was the Donald—who was vastly less overwrought than LaPierre but also vastly less coherent. Trump started off babbling about all the celebs he’d just been hob-nobbing with down at his Miami hotel that morning. Next thing you know, he’s talking about how much Vladmir Putin respects him. How do we know this? Because Putin gave the Donald a present when they were hanging out in conjunction with The Miss Universe pageant, which Trump owns. You know who else really respects Trump? The Chinese. Trump has lots of rich Chinese pals, and they just love him. Plus, Business Week asked some question about the Top 10 things the Chinese want, and you know what they said? Trump stuff. Ties. Hotels. Apartments. Anything with his name on it. They’re crazy for the brand. The biggest bank in China is a tenant in one of Trump’s buildings, and they tell him, “We’ll never leave! We love you! We love the building!” Why? Because they respect Trump. Unlike that Obama schmuck, who they regard as a total loser. (How many hotels does Obama own? Zero! How many reality shows has he starred in? Zero.) And don’t even get Trump started on immigration or Afghanistan or how America should have seized Iraq’s oil after kicking Saddam’s ass.
Yep. After a relatively slow morning, La Pierre and Trump were the political equivalent of that moment at the wedding when the maid of honor slaps the best man, throws up on the groom’s grandma, and passes out in the punch fountain with her dress hiked up around her waist. Which is why, no matter how much abuse we take at CPAC, we the media just cannot stay away.