The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is a little like the Star Wars cantina scene, except with more panels on municipal service privatization initiatives. Actually, this year it was literally like the Star Wars cantina scene – there were a bunch of conservatives dressed as Star Wars characters for some reason.
You had your imperial storm troopers, Darth Vader and Chewbacca. I didn't see any ewoks, but that’s probably more of a Netroots thing.
The frivolity and alcohol aside – and there were plenty of both – CPAC provided some interesting insights into the future of the movement. There were two key trends in evidence. One is youth – the place was crawling with young people. The media loves to offer the image of conservatives as a bunch of Koch brothers sitting around in top hats lighting their Cuban cigars with hundred dollar bills stolen from orphans. At CPAC, it was more like giddy twenty-somethings drinking Lite beer (which has apparently replaced Pabst as the hipsters’ favorite ironic quaff) and competing for power outlets to recharge their iPhones.
One prominent liberal commentator admitted to me that he always has a lot more fun covering conservative functions. Apparently liberals are just as annoying to each other as they are to us.
The second trend at CPAC was optimism. There was, unsurprisingly, common agreement that the present administration and its henchmen are the worst things in the history of human existence. But there was no pessimism, no defeatism. There’s clearly a long, hard fight ahead to keep America from Thelma and Louiseing off a cliff, but the activists are ready for it. And the conservatives are really, really ready for the mid-terms – though they worry that the GOP will stay true to form and find a way to screw up a sure thing.
And then there are the candidates for president in 2016, none of whom admitted they are going to be candidates but might as well have since it was obvious to everyone.
Ted Cruz is clearly running, and the CPAC attendees must have missed the Establishment memo about him being to blame for their track record of failure because he was mobbed like a rock star. This was especially impressive because CPAC stuck him in an early-morning slot when a lot of people were still in bed nursing pre-convention party hangovers. He's like the conservative equivalent of Adam Levine, except Cruz’s music is less terrible.
Rick Perry was everywhere, and he made some news with his pledge to rebel against the liberal establishment’s various oppressions. This guy is definitely running for president. Remember the slow, almost catatonic Rick Perry of the debates? He’s gone. The real Rick is back. Perry was energized, excited and, in small groups, seemed truly jazzed to meet and interact with people. The guy has a solid sense of how to campaign – he clearly loves it – and he was in full campaign mode.
Rand Paul was in full effect too, packing the auditorium for his speech on the second day. There were lots of “I Stand With Rand” stickers, and his supporters were all over the place. Paul could end up the conservative alternative to whatever washed-up moderate hack the panicking GOP Establishment tries to force down our throats in the primaries.
And speaking of Jeb Bush, he must have had a prior engagement.
But Chris Christie was there, and he had the biggest challenge of the attending potential candidates because the conservatives of CPAC largely dislike and distrust him. It was good to have him speak since, despite his recent troubles, there is a very real possibility he will be the nominee. Moreover, if he is the nominee (which is a huge “if”), he stands a pretty fair chance of beating Hillary. The left clearly thinks so – MSNBC wouldn’t be stalking him like a deranged ex-girlfriend if Christie wasn’t a threat.
Christie spoke on the first day, and it was commonly reported that he received a standing ovation coming in. That's technically correct, because some people stood and ovated, but a lot of people sat on their hands, both when he came in and when he left. And there were a lot of empty chairs in the room (You would have needed a can of grease and a crowbar to wedge yourself in when Rand Paul spoke).
Christie, a former trial lawyer, committed a cardinal error that one wouldn't normally expect from an experienced attorney. He didn't understand his jury and address his arguments to it. And there was a jury there to be sure. It was a jury of conservatives, and they were there to render judgment on him.
Chris Christie had to, so to speak, build a bridge to the conservative community. This was his opportunity to do it, and he didn't. His speech should have been directed to conservatives and have taken on the elephant in the room – we just don’t like him and we don’t trust him to be a real conservative. He wasn’t going to win us over then and there, but he could have started the process of regaining our trust. After all, if you want to win the nomination of a party that’s supposed to be conservative, you probably don’t want your name to provoke a stream of obscenities any time a conservative hears it.
But instead, Christie’s speech was just a recitation of basic Republican principles regarding small government and fiscal responsibility. The thing is, conservatives kind of expect that from a Republican. In fact, it was a bit patronizing – as was the reference to his pro-life views that kind of came out of left field, as if he thought that was going to make everything better. In the end, it seemed more like a routine speech to the Des Moines Lincoln Club than a gamechanger that reset his reputation with conservative activists.
That is not to say he didn’t deliver it well. He did. But what Christie needed to say was, “Hey, I'm one of you. Maybe we don't agree on everything, maybe I offended you in the past, but I'm a friend, and let's make up.” He didn't do that, and many conservatives sat on their hands when he got off stage.
The sad thing is for him that the “standing ovation” meme is going to be his takeaway. He no doubt thought he did great, maybe so great that he’s mollified those conservatives and won’t have to deal with them anymore. You get the impression from Christie that he probably doesn’t surround himself with people who tell him things he doesn’t want to hear. If he wants to win the nomination – and to stop getting engulfed in hugely unnecessary scandals – he probably ought to get himself an advisor who’s not afraid to tell him “No.”
One thing was clear, though – Chris Christie is running for president.
Oh, and the most surprising thing about CPAC this year? Mark Levin is really tall.