Spending three days at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is like, well, choose your own metaphor: stepping through the looking glass? Entering the Twilight Zone? Whatever the analogy, it’s a weird world in which John Boehner, the speaker of the House, who helped shut down the government last year at the Tea Party’s insistence, ought to resign for being too moderate. In which, as Rick Santorum told the crowd in his talk, nearly everything that’s wrong with America could be fixed if only the country could “reclaim the true, beautiful institution of marriage.” And in which Texas Governor Rick Perry, that intellectual lightweight whose embarrassing run for president in 2012 apparently has not dissuaded him from trying it again in 2016, told the CPAC multitudes: “It’s time for a little rebellion on the battlefield of ideas.”
You know you’re in trouble when Perry starts taking about “ideas.” Like Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, who believed that a scroll might make him smart, Perry sported new, dark-frame glasses designed to give him the appearance of being intelligent. But he’s still the guy who famously couldn’t remember which government departments he wanted to shut down if elected. Weirdly, at the end of his CPAC speech, his voicing rising to a crescendo over a prolonged standing ovation, Perry received the most thunderous response of any speaker at the three-day event. Sounding like an old-time revivalist, Perry nearly shouted: “Get out of the healthcare business! Get out of the education business! Create prosperity again! My fellow conservatives, the future of this nation is upon you, it belongs to you! You have the power to change America.… America can be great again!”
But only at CPAC would a few thousand people believe that Rick Perry is one who might deliver greatness. Or at least they did at that moment, perhaps caught up in Perry’s stirring cadences. But in the CPAC straw poll of would-be GOP candidates in 2016, Perry didn’t do very well. He finished tied for eighth place, with 3 percent of the approximately 2,000 votes cast.
Twenty-four people were on that ballot, besides Perry, and they represented nearly every possible (and some clearly impossible) candidates who might run in 2016, from the plausible (Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich) to the long-shot, ideologically pleasing-to-the-CPAC-faithful (Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and, believe it or not, Sarah Palin) to the oddball right-wingers who inexplicably have their fans (Donald Trump, former Florida congressman Allen West, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and the ever-popular Dr. Ben Carson). Others on the ballot included a handful of extra-long shots: Susana Martinez, the Latina governor of New Mexico; the South Asian governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley; a quartet of other US senators, Rob Portman, Sam Brownback, Kelly Ayotte and John Thune; two Indianans, Mike Pence and Mitch Daniels; and Condoleezza Rice. There was also the contingent from the religious right on the ballot, including Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum.
As Paul Begala put it on CNN: “Fortunately for us, they’re auditioning for scenes in the Star Wars bar scene.” Indeed, every manner of creature was on display. For those interested in the results, top finishers were Paul (31 percent), Cruz (11 percent), Carson (9 percent), Christie (8 percent), Walker and Santorum (7 percent) and Rubio (6 percent). Everyone else had 3 percent or less. Carson’s third-place finish is a signal that at least some of the CPAC attendees were in orbit. And the key to Paul’s expected but still sweeping win was that nearly half of those casting ballots were 18–25 years old (46 percent), the Rand Paul army that swelled the crowd.
Palin, another crowd favorite for her less-than-well-informed but still thumb-in-Obama’s-eye point of view, gleefully tweaked the Republican establishment throughout her talk, too, to hoots of approval, saying things like: “Thank you, Texas! Because liberty needs a Congress on Cruz-control.” And she slammed the Republican leadership in Congress, and by extension the rest of the mainstream GOP, saying that after Cruz’s mighty filibuster “our army balked. We hoped they were just reloading, but they retreated.” Further referencing Senator Cruz’s otherwise much-disparaged fiibuster that sought to shut down the government against this year over the debt ceiling, Palin riffed on his reading of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, saying: "I do not like this Uncle Sam. I do not like this healthcare scam.” Funny stuff—and the crowd ate it up. But alas, she garnered just 2 percent in the straw poll.
Less funny, because of their nastiness, were the remarks by Ann Coulter, the bomb-throwing provocateur, who blasted the Republican establishment—and many CPAC all-stars, too—for playing footsie with President Obama and the Democrats over immigration reform: “You want the Democrats who want more immigrants, particularly illegal immigrants, because they need brand new voters, just warm bodies, more votes. Amnesty goes through, and the Democrats have 30 million new voters. I just don’t think Republicans have an obligation to forgive law-breaking just because the Democrats need another 30 million voters.”
To be sure, Coulter’s views on immigration didn’t find much support at CPAC, which didn’t provide a forum for hard-line, anti-immigration organizations to speak. Al Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, which puts on CPAC, is an outspoken supporter of at least some reform of immigration laws, and many mainstream GOP officials have belatedly recognized that the party risks the long-term loss of the Hispanic vote if it doesn’t change course.
But Cardenas’s speech to CPAC on Friday was bizarre for another reason. In it, he declared the Obama’s policies have put the United States on course to follow Cuba into Fidel Castro’s camp and the communist world. Cardenas, 65, was born in Cuba and came to the United States after the revolution, and to say that the experience colors his views would be an understatement. After Castro took over, he said, all of his family’s dreams became a “nightmare at the hands of a dictator,” his family lost its business: “The government took it all.” Now, Obama is on he same road, “treating us like subjects, pawns in a chess game.” He went on: “I’ve seen this dark road before.… I witnessed the horrors of too-big government.” Believe it or not, all too many CPAC attendees agree that President Obama is just steps away from establishing a communist, or at socialist, regime—and that he’s using the scary powers of the Internal Revenue Service and the National Security Agency and the registration form for the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) in tandem to get us there. Really.
The IRS-NSA pairing, in which the two agencies are pooling data and using to go after conservatives who dare back the slide toward socialism, led to near-constant calls to abolish the IRS—“Eliminate the IRS once and for all!” said Huckbee—and to rein in the NSA. Ted Cruz, opening his speech on Thursday morning, joked: “By virtue of your being here, each and every one of you is going to be audited by the IRS.”
And Palin joked—or was it a joke?—about the Obamacare-IRS-NSA alliance too: “No, you can’t log onto the website. No you can’t keep your healthcare. No, you can’t make a phone call without Michelle Obama knowing this is the third time this week you dialed Pizza Hut delivery.”
And Huckabee, veering deep in the paranoid, suggested that America’s armed populace, thanks to the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, is the best defense against the IRS-NSA-Obamacare complex: “The Second Amendment is the only last resort we have to protect or other freedoms!”
This is beyond the usual boilerplate political rhetoric. It’s scary stuff, though it would be a lot scarier if the Tea Party, CPAC and far, far right had true power, which they don’t. That’s not to say that they’re not an important force, but as Christie Watch pointed out a length not long ago, the Tea Party and its allies hardly control the Republican party, which is still safely in the hands of the old GOP establishment, the tax-cutting, regulation-destroying, environment-trashing, abortion-banning, military-industrial complex-boosting party that has alienated young people, women, African-Americans, Hispanics and others. On some issues—say, immigration and same-sex marriage—the GOP establishment is getting ready to challenge the Tea Party head on. But perhaps the central fact emerging from CPAC 2014 is that the party’s insurgent wing feels abused, ignored and betrayed, and it’s angry about it.