Last Wednesday, my car loaded up with my daughter and twice the needed clothes and electronic equipment, I left for my annual four-day trip to CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. Five days later on the six-hour drive home I listened to the news reports of the conference and wondered if the media went to the same conference I attended.
Let’s begin with the straw poll
Straw polls taken three years before an election mean very little, and CPAC straw polls mean even less. Less than 25% of the attendees voted in the straw poll. Of those who did, almost half were 25 or younger. In other words the straw poll wasn’t even a representation CPAC attendees much less those who will vote in the Republican primaries. If you look at the history of the straw poll, in the four years before John McCain was nominated the winners were Rudy Giuliani, George Allen, and Mitt Romney twice (Romney’s 2008 win was after he withdrew from the race). In the four years before Romney’s 2012 nomination Ron Paul won twice (he always bussed in supporters to vote for the straw poll).
Other CPAC straw poll winners include Jack Kemp, Phil Graham, Steve Forbes and Gary Bauer. Not one earned the party’s nomination.
Republican Party unity
CPAC was proof that the supposed war within the conservative party is a mainstream media creation. This is not to say it was everyone sitting around the campfire singing Kumbaya, but it wasn’t civil war either. Almost every single speaker, with the exception of Ted Cruz, spoke of the need for a unified party. The emphasis was the argument between some in the party was not based on political policy but on how to execute that policy. People who aren’t typical favorites of the CPAC crowd, such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, drew thunderous applause. Even Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, falsely targeted as not conservative enough by the ultra-right wing Senate Conservatives Fund, was well received although not to the level of the others.
Israel as part of the discussion
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it was not surprising that each and every potential presidential candidate spoke about the U.S. loss of world standing thanks to the “lead from behind” foreign policy of the Obama administration. What was surprising was the mention of Israel as an important ally that was being wrongly pressured by President Obama. Israel was mentioned more times during the 2014 CPAC than each of the past four events combined. Potential candidates mentioned support of Israel as a big issue and s a difference between them and the Democratic Party. Even non-candidates mentioned the need for Obama to stop pressuring only Israel and to start showing a balanced approach.
In past years the Ron Paul supporters would be bussed in to ensure that their guy would win the straw poll. Considered “crazies” by the rest of the attendees, Paul and his supporters were not only anti-Israel but also anti-Semitic. Their absence from the conference the past two years really changed the tenor of CPAC in a good way.
The 2016 campaign
In a private meeting with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus we learned tjay the 2016 primary season will look much different than 2012. The very long primary and debate system (23 debates) will be much shorter. The number of debates will be more than halved, and the convention will be a month earlier. All of this has already been approved by 75% of the RNC. According to Chairman Priebus, the fewer number of debates will prevent some of the public circular firing squads that dominated the 2012 debates. He is also looking at ways to punish candidates (losing delegates) who participate in non-sanctioned debates. In previous years Mr. Priebus explained, once a candidate earned enough delegates, he basically had to stop campaigning because primary and election dollars must to be kept separate by law. And election dollars cannot be spent during before the convention. The earlier convention will allow the eventual candidate to start spending election campaign dollars a month earlier. Also new, according to the Chairman, is that the party will chose the moderators during the debate season. Since it is the party choosing its candidate, Priebus will make sure that the moderators will be friendly to conservatism and to the GOP. He even suggested that a conservative radio host and/or conservative blogger would moderate one of the debates.
John McCain doesn’t matter anymore
Speaker of the House John Boehner wasn’t invited to speak at CPAC and his absence was a source of much backroom chatter. Former presidential candidate John McCain wasn’t invited to CPAC and nobody noticed. His name wasn’t raised by the speakers (except derisively by Ted Cruz), nor did the attendees I listened to mention the senior Senator from Arizona. So when you see McCain on the Sunday news shows, it is not because of his standing in the party but because of his standing among the mainstream media.
Immigration is a much bigger issue than I previously thought
Most at CPAC believed that amnesty for illegal immigrants was something being pushed down the throats of Republicans by its leaders. Every poll of American voters of both political parties ranking their priority issues showed immigration near the bottom of the list. The overall feeling in the conventional hall was the same as it has been every other year I attended secure the border first, enforce e-verify second, then we can talk.
At one point conservative Ann Coulter debated liberal Mickey Kaus, and on the issue of immigration both were opposed to amnesty for illegal immigrants. They believed that the reason for the number of Illegals in the country was jobs, and if we enforced e-verify and prevented companies from hiring illegal immigrants, most would leave the country as they would not be able to get work. Or as Ann Coulter said, “nobody forced them to come here, and if they jobs dry up, nobody will have to force them to leave.”
Speaking of Ann Coulter, I was invited to smaller discussion of immigration featuring the GOP writer and pundit. When I rose up to ask a question and introduced myself as Jeff Dunetz,sShe said “Oh, hello, I read your stuff.” Which I must admit was wonderful for my ego.
CPAC is an important gathering which pulls together conservatives of all kinds, the traditional William F. Buckley conservatives, the Neocon types, Tea Party activists and even some brand new conservatives drawn in by the progressive policies of the Obama administration. Collectively they represent the base of the Republican Party. Perhaps the biggest news left out by the mainstream media is that they left unified. More than any other CPAC in my experience this conference left with a message of unity and eyes on the ultimate goal, retaining the House and winning the Senate.