This is Christie Watch’s second on-the-scene report from CPAC. The first installment appeared on Thursday. On Tuesday, the third and final installment will present an overview of CPAC’s three days, which ended Saturday.
It’s no surprise that, for the second year running, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul won the annual straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Paul gained 31 percent in the straw poll, with Ted Cruz second with 11 percent and everyone else in single digits. Paul’s win, though hardly signals an edge in the race for 2016—after all, Ben Carson, the African-American neurosurgeon who became a hero to conservatives when he rattled off a string of right-wing shibboleths at a 2013 prayer breakfast with President Obama sitting just feet away, came in third with 9 percent of those polled. Still, at CPAC at least, Paul was a rock star.
Paul, the libertarian-conservative and Tea Party favorite—thanks, mostly to the years-long record of insouciance by his father, Ron Paul, the former Texas congressman—drew adulation, followers and fans everywhere he went at CPAC. At a book signing just a hour or so before he spoke, hundreds of people—mostly young people, college students and those in their 20s—lined up in eager anticipation of a handshake during a book-signing by Paul, and everywhere at the conference attendees sported “Stand with Rand” stickers.
When he came out to speak at the ballroom, the place was packed, standing room only. Paul, dressed casually in jeans—a distinct difference from the more buttoned-up look of other speakers—entered to the raucous strains of Chumbawamba’s "Tubthumper": “I get knocked down, but I get up again, they’re never gonna keep me down!” The music continued during Paul’s tumultuous reception, which could only be described as rapturous, a lengthy standing ovation punctuated by war whoops and cheers, and he basked in the cacophony. And Paul didn’t disappoint his followers, many of whom are independents and libertarians (and Libertarians), many of whom don’t really identify with the Grand Old Party. Paul made it clear that the Republican party is hardly his North Star, either: “You may think I’m talking about electing Republicans. I’m not. I’m talking about electing lovers of liberty. It’s not good enough to choose the lesser of two evils.”
More war whoops. And, while Paul has clearly set his sights on the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, he’s not afraid to scare establishment Republicans with the threat of a breakaway movement. During his talk, Paul seemed almost to look past the gray-haired GOP right-wingers in the hall and speak directly to the young people who make up his activist base. Early in his fifteen-minute address, Paul spoke directly to them: “Will you, the next generation of liberty lovers, will you stand and be heard?’
Though Paul, like every CPAC speaker, tossed a few rhetorical bombs Obama’s way on the usual issues, he focused nearly the entirety of his talk on a single topic: the surveillance state, domestic spying, the National Security Agency and drones. (Recently, along with Bruce Fein, Paul filed a lawsuit over the NSA data-collection program, and as he pointed out to cheers from the multitude, he filibustered “when the president refused to rule out droning an American.”) In his talk, he said, “The NSA monitors your every phone call! [And] I believe that what you do on your cell phone is none of their damn business!”
For Paul, the Obama administration, the NSA program, the Internal Revenue Service’s tax-collection system and pretty much everything else is one big ball of wax, and without quite saying it he implied—as did several other CPAC speakers this week—that the NSA’s database can easily be accessed for political purposes. (In interviews with Christie Watch, a fair number of CPAC attendees said exactly that, connecting the trumped-up charges of IRS political targeting with NSA surveillance as if it were a single program.) “Government, unrestrained by law, becomes nothing short of tyranny,” he said. And that’s red meat for Paul’s followers who, though they admire Paul for his opposition to the NSA and for his anti-interventionist (that is, isolationist) foreign policy, also agree with Paul’s Ayn Rand–like views about disappearing the government in general.
The searing influence of the libertarians rocked other sessions of CPAC, too, the great discomfit of traditional conservatives. At a panel on privacy and the NSA, where a film clip of Edward Snowden was received approvingly by a large portion of the audience, Bruce Fein got into a heated dispute with former Virginia Governor James Gilmore, a national-security hardliner, who drew boos and catcalls (“You lie!”) when he said, “Snowden is not only a traitor, but a coward.” Fein repeatedly slammed Gilmore for his views, and the ex-governor became angrier and angrier, nearly shouting at several points in the discussion. To more catcalls, Gilmore declared heatedly that Snowden is helping “to dismantle the defenses of this nation in a time of maximum danger.” But when the panel’s moderator asked for a show of hands from those who thought that the NSA data-collection program was making the country safer, only a paltry few hands went up among the hundreds there.
At another panel, whose topic was to analyze whether “libertarians and social conservatives” can unite, there was great disunity. One audience member, clearly dissatisfied with the fact that the Christian right’s anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion, anti-pot message had undermined the Republican party’s chances in recent elections, asked: “Will conservatives ever ease up on social issues, or do we have to wait for our generation to do it?” That would be the generation, of course, that Rand Paul is appealing to.
On CPAC’s own on-line conference newsfeed, one attendee, Victor S. posted:
It’s unfortunate that this conference has been hijacked by libertarians. Libertarians are not conservatives. They should hold their own conference. The fact that Rick Santorum had to debate libertarians shows how out of whack this conference has become. Sad to see this change.
Besides Chumbawamba, whose music echoed through the cavernous hall before and after this talk—and which was probably not chosen to appeal to the 60-somethings in the crowd—Paul also said that conservatives who don’t pay attention to the Fourth Amendment, the right to privacy and the right to avoid unwarranted search and seizure ought to listen to Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, perhaps the first time that sage was ever cited at a CPAC event:
Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange
a walk-on part in the war
for a lead role in a cage?
For Paul, the war is just starting, and he’s got a lead role.