WASHINGTON, March 15, 2013 — There’s something surreal and basically disconnected from reality about CPAC. It seems to exist in its own little world, put on by political insiders for political insiders, yet claiming to speak for a broad popular movement which it really doesn’t interface with at all.
Most of CPAC really goes on behind the scenes with professional political operatives networking and looking for jobs. But the public face of the event is a great and colorful cavalcade of political celebrity which claims to define the direction of the political right for the next election cycle.
This year the organizers jumped the shark by titling the event “America’s Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives” and then doing their best to step out of the flow of the changing conservative mainstream and turn the clock back at least a decade. They excluded many of the conservative groups and leaders with the strongest resonance with younger voters, including gay Republicans and Liberty Republicans who are emerging as the leading edge of real change for the political right.
To get an idea of how backwards looking CPAC is, they chose not to invite emerging political star Chris Christie, who is at least as conservative as many others they invited to speak, and gave a plum speaking spot to former Rep. Allen West, whose pro-war, big-government politics were soundly rejected by the voters after only one term.
West was just one of a firmament of tarnished stars, has-beens and political failures invited to CPAC. The list includes Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and even Jeb Bush. The guest list reads like an invocation to repeat the political mistakes of the past 20 years and somehow come up with a different result.
Of course, the media loves CPAC and gives it lots of coverage, so major political figures who would otherwise ignore this inbred dog and pony show, make sure they show up long enough to grab some camera time and make a rousing speech before moving on to do something that actually matters.
The endless rounds of speeches were made more interesting today by what some in the media have described as a “showdown” between Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, perceived as two of the major young contenders i the 2016 presidential race, though it is still very far off.
Both had prime-time speeches today, so it was easy to draw a contrast, and the differences were striking, both in how they performed and what they had to say. In this contest Rubio was the hometown favorite, embodying the idea that change is bad and selling the hogwash that rehashing failed old ideas will work better if he’s the one doing it. Paul was the challenger from outside, fresh off his filibuster victory and driven with a kinetic enthusiasm which was hard to resist.
Nowhere was the choice facing conservatives more clearly delineated than on the points in their speeches which were most in contrast.
Both spoke about limited governemnt and economic growth. Who doesn’t agree that prosperity is good? Rubio went back again and again to the old stalwarts of the social conservatives – abortion and traditional marriage – issues which divide the party and divide the nation. Paul focused instead on fundamental principles. Liberty and individuality and getting government out of peoples lives, values which appeal across the generations and even across party lines and unite people of diverse backgrounds.
Rubio talked about a future of more of the same, the future that CPAC is all about and that the party establishment loves: preaching to the choir, playing to the same shrinking special interests, excluding more and more groups until the party boxes itself in. Rubio’s future was the future of an increasingly irrelevant minor party – really no meaningful future at at all. Rubio even said, “We don’t need a new idea … the idea is called America, and it still works.”
Paul’s ideas were broad and expansive and inclusive. They were ideas not for party insiders or special interests, but ideas to inspire the people of the nation, ideas on which to build a new and better Republican Party with a broader appeal and a future of growth and relevance. Paul said “The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered … The new GOP will need to embrace liberty in both the economic and the personal sphere.”
Throughout his presentation Rubio was calm and measured, playing to a friendly audience, but Paul outdid him in energy and enthusiasm and was matched by a roaring crowd which was on its feet most of the speech and clearly inspired by his vision.
At the end of the day it seemed like CPAC had gotten one thing right. It is definitely time for a new future for the Republican Party. It just seems pretty clear that the one they endorse, as expressed by Marco Rubio, is not the future which the party wants or needs. Their future is a sad rehash of past failures – the faded glories of old men. Rand Paul offers a real future which is new and dynamic, with his message of liberty and inclusion and his audience of young activists.
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