The good news from the Conservative Political Action Conference — and it really is very good news — is that the assembled activists have identified as their preferred choice for the presidency a militant opponent of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who has voted against the Patriot Act, opposed free-trade deals, condemned the expansion of executive power and warned about collusion between "too-big-to-fail" bankers and the government regulators who are supposed to keep an eye on them.
No, the CPAC crowd did not name Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold as their preferred pick to oppose President Obama in 2012. But they did vote, rather overwhelmingly, for the one Republican who shares the views of Feingold — and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders — on the aforementioned issues.
The CPAC presidential straw poll, in which a record 2,400 conservative conferees voted, was won with ease by Congressman Ron Paul, the Texas Republican and 2008 presidential candidate whose backers like to refer to their campaign as a revolution.
Here’s the final tally:
Ron Paul 31%
Mitt Romney 22%
Sarah Palin 7%
Tim Pawlenty 6%
Mike Pence 5%
Newt Gingrich 4%
Mike Huckabee 4%
Mitch Daniels 2%
John Thune 2%
Rick Santorum 2%
Haley Barbour 1%
What do these numbers mean?
That depends on whether you are a Republican Party insider or someone who is genuinely concerned about changing our politics.
If you’re an insider, the result means nothing. After all, as Fox News was quick to point out after it became known that Fox News commentators Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee had been soundly rejected, "The straw poll is not binding."
On the other hand, if you would like to believe that all this talk of anger and rebellion might be about something more than warming over the inside-the-Beltway talking points that Palin spouts, then the CPAC result has to be encouraging.
It is not necessary to agree with all (or even much) of what Ron Paul says to recognize that he is not, like Mitt Romney or Sarah Palin, a lipstick on a pig version of same-old-same-old Republicanism. The Texan is less a conservative than a libertarian when it comes to criticizing wars, assaults on liberty, taxes and spending — be the "sins" committed by the Democrats who are currently in power or the Republicans who were recently in power.
In fact, the Republican establishment despises Paul. Don’t forget that, after he clashed over foreign policy with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani during a 2007 Republican presidential debate, there were calls for keeping Paul off GOP stages.
Notably, Giuliani is no longer considered a contender for national office.
Paul, on the other hand, is — at least among the CPAC activists.