Washingtonians awoke this morning to cold, rainy, crappy weather—and yet another day of shutdown angst.
But inside the city’s Omni Shoreham hotel, where the annual Values Voters Conference was kicking off, it was just like freaking Christmas. Droves of family-values voters filled the Regency Ballroom to revel in a parade of speechifying by Congress’s conservative rock stars: Sens. Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio (looking to redeem himself after that ugly immigration reform business), and Tim Scott.
It was, as you would expect, the definition of a political love-in. The crowd was thick with the very base voters for whom House Republicans have shut down the government. These voters are fired-up, furious, and flat-out terrified that the current administration is hell-bent on destroying the country they love and the way of life they cherish. Like the savvy pols they are, each and every speaker eagerly stoked that fear, be it Mike Lee’s focus on the horrors of the debt or Rand Paul’s discourse on the global war against Christianity.
Some lawmakers were more hellfire-and-brimstone than others. Rubio stuck with his trademark earnest boyishness, calling on “our leaders to stop ignoring the impact culture is having on our nation” and plaintively asserting his right to share his faith in Jesus. Paul was professorial, with his history and geopolitical lessons on Islam. Scott toggled back and forth between preacher mode—he opened with the lyrics to “Amazing Grace”—and chatty, story-telling mode. (Watch this guy. He’s a heckuva storyteller.)
But let’s be honest: even among such an all-star line-up, not all stars are created equal. And the undisputed big dog of this morning’s political dog-and-pony show was the Cruz, the junior senator from Texas.
After all the abuse he’s taken of late, Cruz must have felt like he had entered the promised land. Long before he took the stage, the mere mention of his name sent this crowd into a swoon. And when he at last strode out, live and in the flesh, the entire room leapt to its feet—not just clapping, but waving hats and arms and whooping with delight. As Cruz tried to speak, one avid fan near the front cried out in ecstasy, “If God is for you, who can be against you?!”
I suspect John Boehner could come up with a few names if he had to.
In fact, even within the snuggly, friendly womb of this conference, Cruz could not totally escape his critics. A dozen or so hecklers had bought tickets to the event and, every now and again throughout Cruz’s speech, one would pop up to interrupt the proceedings, prompting an increasingly angry outcry from the crowd. Once, twice, seven times, eight times—repeatedly security had to be called in to escort out one of Cruz’s passionate detractors. At one point, order started to fray and the crowd, determined to drown out the protesters, took to chanting loudly “U-S-A! U-S-A!” like attendees of some electrifying international sporting event.
Despite such enforced breaks, Cruz wowed with his the-end-is-nigh message. “You know we can’t keep going down this road much longer,” he preached to the rapt choir. “We’re nearing the edge of the cliff. …We have only a couple of years to turn this country around or we go off the cliff to oblivion!”
Cruz didn’t have much to offer in terms of substance or vision. Mike Lee was far better on this front, with his call on conservatives to start being for something, and his vaguely populist message about the need to dismantle “corporate welfare” and work to lighten the burden of the most vulnerable among us.
Not Ted. He stuck with what he knows works: exhorting conservatives to just keep fighting the good fight against anything and everything that Obama is doing. Folks gobbled it up like cookie dough, loving him more by the minute. The senator opened his speech by pledging not to speak for 21 hours and joking that we would be able to tell when he was wrapping up because he’d start reading The Cat in the Hat. By the end, he could have been reading passages from the D.C. phonebook and the audience would have been on its feet. As demagogues go, he’s just that good.
With Cruz, Paul, and Rubio all on the program, it was impossible not to study their performances for signs of what the 2016 primary battle will bring. Rubio, of course, is trying to claw his way back into the base’s good graces, and proclaiming his socially conservative bona fides today was a key (if kinda uninspiring) part of that. Paul’s decision to go with “the worldwide war on Christianity” rather than a more libertarian theme was also a savvy choice. (Social conservatives aren’t opposed to government altogether, so long as it is working to promote/prevent behaviors in line with their values.) It also gave Paul a chance to clarify his isolationist rep by drawing distinctions between good military action (Afghanistan) and bad (any proposed intervention in Syria, which, as he knows, is unpopular with pretty much everyone).
But as far as this crowd was concerned, there was only one presidential figure on stage this morning, and his name was Cruz. It almost made you feel sorry for the rest.
Then, having received his jolt of adrenaline and affirmation, Cruz bid his fans farewell and headed across town for a budget powwow with President Obama.