Conservative Conscience columnists Tom Hebert and Andrew Magloughlin ventured to CPAC with the American University Young Americans for Liberty chapter. Before Tom and Andrew recount their CPAC experiences, some general notes must be shared. Among potential Republican presidential candidates, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz drew the largest audiences in descending size, respectively. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush also garnered a large crowd; however, he faced turbulence from an organized libertarian protest. During Bush’s speech, more than one hundred faithful Rand Paul supporters marched out of the CPAC ballroom in rank and file. As the protestors exited the room, cacophonous chants of “U-S-A” and “no more war” erupted from the hallways. Multiple disgruntled GOP faithful directed threats toward Bush during his speech. No other candidate faced visible public disconnects. In this analysis, only relevant candidates are included. If you hoped for an analysis of Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, or Donald Trump, Andrew and Tom are sorry to disappoint.
Governor Jeb Bush
Tom: Considering the overt hostility of the crowd when Sean Hannity mentioned Bush’s name in his earlier speech, Bush did quite well. The ultimate battle between rigid ideological purity and pragmatic conservatism was on glittering display here. Self-identifying as a “practicing, reform-minded conservative,” Bush stood firm on his record as governor of Florida, and defended his controversial positions on immigration and education with eloquence and facts. Facing scorn from conservatives, Bush is a known Common-Core advocate. More controversial is Bush’s desire to naturalize the existing eleven million illegal immigrants in the United States after securing the border. Bush claimed that if the United States raises its economic growth rate to 4 percent, there would be more than enough jobs for Americans and immigrants to coexist. Bush flexed his muscle on foreign policy when talking about how to defeat ISIS, much like his father and brother before him. Even amid reports of Bush bussing supporters in, and a sizeable walkout by libertarian-leaning Rand Paul supporters, Bush seemed to win over the lion’s share of the crowd.
Dr. Ben Carson (Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon)
Andrew: The Ben Carson campaign “came out swinging” early Thursday morning with a mass distribution of T-shirts, posters, pins, and collapsible “Run-Ben-Run!” banners. Carson delivered a substantial speech addressing the pressing needs to appeal the Affordable Care Act, support Israel, toughen sanctions on Iran, destroy ISIS, and create American jobs. While Carson isn’t known for his charisma, his passion showed during his speech, and flourished during his meet-and-greet event later that morning. Carson was one of two Republicans to address climate change in a substantive manner. While Carson denounced environmental regulation, he encouraged firms to improve production efficiency. Also, Carson recognized that optimizing the use of natural resources would improve business growth. Carson claimed (roughly, as his meet-and-greet transcript isn’t available): “People think that you can either save the environment or create jobs. It’s not one or the other. Improving efficiency will help business, and we can do so while growing the economy.” While Carson is far from a frontrunner, both of us were impressed. Keep an eye out for Carson as an advisor to Republican medical policies in the future.
Governor Chris Christie
Tom: I take the contrarian position on Christie’s performance. Most major media outlets reported Christie’s twenty-minute exchange with Laura Ingraham as yet another pitfall in a month-long slide for the New Jersey governor. Conveniently, none of these reporters mentioned the electricity of the crowd when Christie recounted his battles with teacher’s unions, or his firm pro-life stance. Christie is not a relevant candidate because of his treacherous record as New Jersey governor, but most of us like the entertainment value he brings to the table. Considering a crowd who probably disdains him as much as Bush, Christie did pretty well at emphasizing his conservative credentials.
Senator Ted Cruz
Tom: Senator Cruz gave the most galvanizing speech at CPAC by a longshot. Despite the overwhelming presence of Rand Paul supporters in the audience, Cruz managed to keep the crowd on its feet for most of his speech. Cruz’s trademark fire-and-brimstone rhetoric demanded for removing executive power from Washington and returning it to the people. In addition, Cruz emphasized a federalist approach in dealing with gay marriage and marijuana legalization, and vowed to abolish the IRS if he were elected. Along with most other speakers, Cruz promised to “repeal every single letter of Obamacare,” as well as fight ISIS will all our military has to offer. This principled populism combined with a definite vision of leadership won over the hearts and minds of most in the crowd; Cruz is, without question, the best orator the Republican Party has ever seen.
Senator Rand Paul
Andrew: Senator Paul, now a three time CPAC straw poll champion, reveled during his timeslot Friday afternoon. As always, Paul focused on the need to cut government’s influence and establish civil liberties. Included in these liberties is the barring of metadata from the NSA and the right to a fair and speedy trial. Paul, by a large margin, addressed more specific policy solutions than any other candidate, such as his soon-to-be introduced “Read the Bills Act,” which forces congressmen to read all proposed legislation, the largest tax cut in American history, and two constitutional amendments proposing term limits for both federal judges and congressmen and disabling Congress from excluding itself from legislation. Paul then hammered Hilary Clinton for her failures in Libya and demanded her permanent retirement. When Paul proclaimed: “This country needs a new leader,” chants demanding for “President Paul” erupted in the crowd. Most importantly, Paul attempted to abridge his existing gap with the public regarding foreign policy. Instead of avoiding the subject, Paul called for a nimble and powerful military directed by leaders who think before acting. Paul’s distaste for reactionary foreign intervention displayed as he referenced previous failings in the Middle East. Overall, Paul spoke with a compelling sense of urgency. It is yet to be seen whether his foreign policy is still questioned by Republican voters, but if CPAC is indicative of trends, currently, Paul is the clear presidential frontrunner.
Senator Marco Rubio
Tom: Oh, how far he’s fallen. Once a darling among the media as a fresh face among conservatives in 2012, Senator Rubio struggled to fake a hunger for the presidency in his speech. Rubio failed to tout his policies for middle-class growth or his foreign policy credentials, both widely considered to be his strongest characteristics as a candidate. It was disheartening for such a young star in the GOP to fail spectacularly at a pivotal moment in his quest for a campaign. Rubio received a lukewarm response from the crowd at best. Also, it is notable that while Senator Rand Paul delayed his 10:00 AM speech to vote in the Senate, Rubio, as he famously does, skipped voting procedure to speak at CPAC. Rubio is disreputable for his voting absences, as he touts the seventh worst attendance record among active senators. Senator Rubio, if you’re going to deliver a lukewarm speech, at least do your job first!
Governor Scott Walker
Andrew: Displaying his economic success in Wisconsin, Governor Walker appealed to all sects of the CPAC community. As most candidates did, Walker encouraged securing the border with Mexico, growing the United States economy, and defending traditional marriage. A recurring topic in CPAC speeches was the need for “school choice” and teacher performance evaluation. Scott Walker touted his success in Wisconsin against 100,000 teacher union members to which he refused to comply with when implementing school choice policy. Walker then made an abstract comparison of his battles with teacher unions to fighting ISIS overseas. Whether or not the ISIS comparison bothers the reader, Walker’s success with school choice and his stark opposition to Common Core is convincing. Many Republican Presidential hopefuls share his same education opinions, but lack Walker’s experience. In times of vast economic inequality, school choice may be the answer to eliminating inner-city struggles for education. Overall, Walker is a candidate that appeals to both the Republican establishment and the younger Tea-Party movement. Whether or not he chooses to run, Walker will be highly sought out as a running mate.
Tom: Despite CPAC’s standing as a major event in any GOP presidential hopeful’s campaign, attendees tend to be young libertarian-leaning Tea-Partiers. Consequently, CPAC audiences are not always indicative of the party at large. When looking at each candidate’s position in their respective campaigns, Jeb Bush has greatly surpassed them all. As you read this article, Bush is amassing the best of the best to work for him, and courting Goldman Sachs for financial support. Conservative skeptics of Bush need to look at his record in Florida before writing him off as a moderate; chief among his policy implementations was the first state-wide school choice program in the U.S., in addition to castle doctrine laws and massive tax cuts. Jeb Bush will win the nomination because of his conservative record, moderate appeal, and innumerable donor bases combined with an elite campaign staff. Upstart grassroots candidates like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz will cut their teeth on this election cycle, but should sit out for four (or eight) more years to gather experience in the Senate. Bush’s running mate will be none other than Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, whose skirmishes with the teacher’s unions make him a conservative hero to multitudes in the GOP base.
Prediction: Bush/Walker 2016
Andrew: At the moment, Jeb Bush has a general disconnect with the Republican Party. Although many falsely label Bush as a moderate, the Republicans are skeptical of another Bush oligarch. In 2012, Republicans relentlessly searched for “other-than-Romney” options to place on the presidential ballot. To many Republican faithfuls, Romney was an outdated and already-failed presidential candidate. After sorting through Gingrich, Santorum, Cain, and Perry, the Republicans nominated Romney, and sparingly turned out at the poll booths. Andrew sees Republicans attempting the same strategy with Bush; however, there is a difference between now and 2012. Unlike in 2012, the Republican Party now teems with credentialed presidential candidates. If Paul, Cruz, or Walker runs a swift and sturdy campaign, Bush is vulnerable. At the moment, it is far too early to make substantive predictions for the presidency, especially in the midst of healthy competition. For the moment, Andrew’s prediction flows with the momentum.
Prediction: Paul/Carson 2016