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.