On CPAC Day 2, the Libertarian Wing Takes Over

As hangovers cleared, on panels and in booths, Day 2’s momentum drained away from the GOP’s aging “values” peddlers—in favor of the young, energetic followers of Rand Paul.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty

Day 2 of CPAC got rolling with a more subdued crowd than Day 1. Not because folk weren’t having fun. Quite the opposite: More than a few attendees clearly had stayed up too late having too much fun Thursday night. Throughout the convention center, you heard people asking variations on the questions: “So what time did you get to bed?” In the downstairs exhibit hall, attendees of all ages slumped on the white sofas like bleary-eyed rag dolls. Standing in line at the hotel’s sundries shop, one young Citadel cadet groaned to his buddies: “I’m hung over harder than I deserve.”

For much of the day, the main ballroom was drawing less action and attention than it did on Thursday. Most of the program lineup was slightly lower wattage (Rick Perry instead of Ted Cruz; Mike Huckabee and John Cornyn instead of Chris Christie and Marco Rubio), tilted more toward values issues (Rick Santorum and Ralph Reed), and, perhaps as a result, more sparsely attended. Which was a shame, because there were some sweet sparks flying, courtesy of the ongoing battle for the soul of the movement.

The morning panel on national security may have been the feistiest discussion of the entire convention. Libertarian lawyer Bruce Fein went mano a mano with former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who took a traditional strong-defense, Edward-Snowden-is-a-traitor stance. Voices were raised. The combatants got snarky. Charges of naivete, cluelessness, and “nonsense demagoguery” were hurled back and forth. And that was mild compared to the audience pushback. Though the crowd was tiny, it was fierce—and firmly in Fein’s corner. Most words out of Gilmore’s mouth drew boos and loud grumbling. At one point, an outraged audience member cut loose with a Joe Wilsonesque “You lie!” When Gilmore took a swipe at Rand Paul by name, I feared for his safety. By session’s end, I wanted to give the former governor a hug, a Band-Aid, and a big glass of Johnny Walker Black.

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A couple of speakers later, Mike Huckabee revved up the crowd with his just-plain-folks sermonizing. Starting out, he trotted out a four-decade-old quote from Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth: “If God does not bring a fiery judgment on America, he will have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.” Huck then proceeded to list all the ways that Obama’s America is so much worse than the one poor Mrs. Graham was talking about, before ending on this cautionary note: “It is time for conservatives to focus on how we will lead America, not just how we will bleed each other in the context of our conservative world. Too much is at stake. The future is too important for us to spend our time fighting each other.”

Alas, someone forgot to pass this message along to longtime culture warrior Ralph Reed, who took the podium not long after and proceeded to rip his party a new one. Reed began, predictably enough, lamenting the “war on religion and religious values being waged by this administration and its radical allies.” But after ticking through Obama’s sins, Reed turned on his own party for having “aided and abetted” the war. To all those Republicans with “backbones like eclairs” who support “mushy, mealy-mouth moderation,” Reed had this message: “We will not follow them any longer. From now on, we are going to accept—in ’14, ’16, and going forward—nothing less than unapologetic, unalloyed conservatives” who fight for “biblical principles including freedom of religion, the sanctity of life, and [traditional] marriage.” Take that, all you gay-rights-loving RINOs and godless libertarians.

Speaking of which, the early afternoon panel—“Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Ever Get Along?”—was less electrifying than it might have been. (The social cons kept pompously lecturing the libertarians like they were small, slightly stupid children.) But there was a zippy back-and-forth about marriage equality that spotlighted precisely how far apart the two wings of conservatism remain. And after enduring all the patronizing by the social cons, a young libertarian on the panel closed with a pointed observation that boiled down to: demographics are destiny, young voters are tilting more libertarian than ever before on issues like gay rights, and if the GOP doesn’t wise up it is going to be in deep shit in the very near future.

For a glimpse at the buzz libertarianism is increasingly generating within the movement—especially among the younger voters the GOP desperately needs—you only had to pop back down to the exhibit hall. Of all the booths, the one consistently drawing the biggest crowds was WarOnYouth, a joint project by Generation Opportunity and Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), a 501 (c ) (4) sprung from the ashes of Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential run. As a clever gimmick, YAL was having passers-by fill out a quickie quiz to determine where they fell on an ideological quadrant that included not just a left/right divide, but also a libertarian/statist one. According to the results chart, the vast majority of respondents fell into the libertarian range, represented by—surprise!—Ron and Rand Paul. As it so happened, YAL was also handing out fistfuls of “Stand with Rand” goodies (pins, stickers, T-shirts, bumper stickers, key chains…).

At an unrelated table not far away, a marketing group was hosting its own “2016 White House Derby.” Of the 10 or so candidates, the solid frontrunner was Rand Paul with 28 percent, followed by Ted Cruz with 15 percent. And at the official RandPAC booth, men and women registered to win lunch with the senator and lined up to have their photo taken with a life-size cardboard cutout.

Rand the man was also busy working the festivities. He had a 1 p.m. book signing in the exhibit hall, a 3:15 meet-and-greet with premium ticket holders, and a “Liberty Happy Hour and Reception” at a nearby restaurant.

But the main event of the day was the libertarian-leaning senator’s official speech. As time for it approached, more and more people crowded into the main ballroom. This had the coincidental effect of filling the room to capacity for the preceding speaker, Rick Santorum. For a while, I couldn’t figure out why so many people were flocking to see a failed presidential candidate, even one with Santorum’s conservative street cred. But then Santorum wrapped thing up, and still more people kept filing in as Paul’s address drew nigh. It was clear whom the masses were flocking to see.

Ironically, despite all the love, Rand didn’t bring his A game. He was hoarse, he looked tired, and his speech (basic theme: government tyranny is bad) wasn’t particularly soaring. Not that he is ever a really electrifying orator. He tends toward the wonky, goes heavy on historical references, and likes to quote folks like Montesquieu. But nobody cared. The crowd loved him. These were his people, and they were whooping and hollering and chanting and fist-pumping like it was Saturday night at the roller derby. By the time Rand wrapped it all up by calling on the crowd to “Stand with me! Stand together for liberty!” at least half the room would have followed him down to the gates of hell if he’d asked.

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If I were among the conservative movement’s values voters or hawks, I’d be getting mighty nervous right about now.