What do you get when you bring together Republicans from all around the country for a weekend full of politics? You get CPAC, or the Conservative Political Action Conference. This year’s conference was held March 6-8 in National Harbor, Maryland – just outside the borders of our nation’s capital. Young conservatives and College Republicans from all over the United States, including our very own CRs from the University of Michigan, were the predominant attendees. The weekend consisted of various seminars, networking opportunities, and numerous Republican public figures giving speeches and signing copies of their latest books.
As the Republican National Convention in 2016 slowly approaches, a select few of these figures made sure to make their presence known on the CPAC stage, eagerly using this opportunity to further establish their potential bid for the White House. Among some of the prospective presidential candidates attending were New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Kentucky senator Rand Paul, Texas senator Ted Cruz, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, and neurosurgeon (and Michigan alumnus) Ben Carson. The energy in the room varied from speaker to speaker as each of these men spoke about his ideas of the current status and goals of the Republican Party, along with throwing a few punches at the incumbent president.
As almost anyone familiar with internal GOP politics knows, there’s an ongoing competition of ideas between the social conservatives, moderate Republicans, and libertarian Republicans. CPAC provided the perfect forum for each of these factions to pitch their vision for addressing the issues they feel are most crucial to the future.
New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie was one of the first speakers to make an appearance. Governor Christie’s controversial Bridgegate scandal did not keep the audience from giving him a standing ovation. Christie concentrated on painting himself as the rational, moderate conservative in the field of candidates. He also argued that the Republican Party needed to move beyond criticism and start offering alternative solutions to the problems at hand. “Our ideas are better than their [Democrat’s] ideas and that’s what we have to stand up for.” Christie came in fourth in the CPAC straw poll.
Meanwhile, politicians like Texas senator Ted Cruz differentiated themselves from the moderate-right by emphasizing the importance of sticking to principle and fighting for the full repeal of ObamaCare. Cruz advocated for a relentless approach in the upcoming elections and called on the base to stand together in unity: “You want to lose elections? Stand for nothing,” he said. “We put our head down, we stood for nothing and we got walloped,” raged Cruz, accusing previous presidential nominees Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney of not drawing clear-enough distinctions between themselves and the Democrats.
Kentucky senator Rand Paul made one of the final, and most attended,
appearances of the weekend event. Paul’s libertarian, limited-government conservatism was a big hit among the crowd, as he spoke in a manner that demonstrated his understanding of what it takes for Republicans to win back Washington in the fall, specifically the Senate. Although he avoided the topic of foreign policy, he made sure to address issues of personal freedom and the failures of the Obama administration. “I don’t question President Obama’s motives,” Paul added, “but history will remember his timid defense of liberty.” Not only was Rand Paul’s speech widely attended, but the senator also came in first in the CPAC straw poll, for the second consecutive year, with Cruz taking a second and neurosurgeon Ben Carson placing third.
Although the GOP may be divided in priority at the moment, one thing is clear: everyone that attended CPAC is unhappy with the status quo in Washington. In order to have a shot at winning back the presidency in 2016, the various factions within the GOP will need to find a way to come together. Each speaker at the conference hinted at this reality. The party is on the brink of an inevitable transformation, and it will be intriguing to watch.