The annual CPAC conference, now in its 47th year, is the premier stage on which GOP stars and neophytes can strut their stuff and position themselves as potential contenders for national office. Notwithstanding the scaled-back venue for the event last weekend in Florida instead of Washington, DC, the event presented a parade of talent which, if Republicans play it smart, should provide a generation of strong leadership for a political party needing a winning strategy and a clear message.
While the media’s attention understandably was focused on former President Donald Trump’s Sunday afternoon speech, the real worth of the conference showed through in the “farm team” of GOP representatives, senators, and state governors who addressed the gathering in-person and virtually.
Having the former president deliver the keynote address made perfect sense. After all, until the unforeseeable COVID pandemic reared its ugly head one year ago, the last four years under his leadership delivered a booming economy, energy independence, lower taxes, stability abroad, and regulatory reform unseen since Ronald Reagan’s first term in office. Trump’s message of economic freedom and secure borders must continue to undergird the Republican Party.
Ultimately, however, the key to future electoral success for Republicans is by who and how that message is delivered, and the spotlight for that stage must be broadened to highlight not only the former president but beyond.
Trump has much to commend himself to the GOP moving forward. The motherload of anti-establishment sentiment he tapped into five years ago propelled him to an extraordinarily unexpected victory in 2016. He also showed voters that it is possible to be elected to national office and actually deliver on campaign promises.
At the same time, it must be noted that the pool of talent on which the GOP now can, and should draw is deep and impressive, and it would be irresponsible for the party to insist that such valuable human resource wait in the wings for the next four years. Four years is more than enough time for the Democrats to solidify their bureaucratic strength, and to manipulate voting processes by hook or crook to ensure that they will retain power nationally far beyond the coming quadrennium.
Indeed, despite Biden’s win last November, his party is not sitting idly by savoring its victory. They are keenly aware of how close their margin was on Nov. 3rd, and they see the same stumbles and lapses in Biden’s performance the rest of us are witnessing. Democrats will continue to promote their young talent onto the bench and into the lineup, not only Vice President Kamala Harris but Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and current Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison, to name just a few.
The GOP, with successful and telegenic sitting governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis and South Dakota's Kristi Noem, Members of Congress including Dan Crenshaw and Jim Jordan, and Sens. Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton, among many others, has an even broader and deeper pool of talent. These stars, however, must be free to breathe, spread their wings, and be encouraged to fight vigorously to prove themselves; not as second-stringers in Trump’s shadow, but in their own right so that the cream of the crop rises to the top.
Politically, the next four years will be brutal -- no-holds-barred pitched battles waged in the media, state legislatures, congressional districts, and even courthouses across the country. And, if there is one thing Nov. 2020 and Jan. 2021 taught us, it is that old playbooks, even the one that propelled Trump to the presidency five years ago, are no long guarantors of success; my home state of Georgia, now represented in the Senate by two ultra-liberal Democrats, is proof of that.
How the GOP manages its “off-season” will reveal whether the party has taken those lessons to heart, and with a balancing act that would be the envy of the Flying Wallendas high-wire team.
If Trump, who still has much of value to give his party and his country, is willing to immerse himself as a coach for the star-studded team the Republicans already have suited up, not only he will solidify his legacy but usher in a resurgence for the GOP. To paraphrase John Fogerty, “put them in coach, they’re ready to play.”
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He served as the United States Attorney in Atlanta from 1986 to 1990 and was an official with the CIA in the 1970s. He now practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and serves as head of Liberty Guard.