The first day of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference raised more questions about the direction of the conservative movement than it answered.
While the base appeared to coalesce around opposition to President Obama’s foreign policy, party divisions were still crystal clear. And though many red-meat issues, like the Benghazi, Libya attack, the IRS targeting scandal and ObamaCare, got play, other issues — like gay marriage — were notably absent from the discussion.
Here are The Hill's five takeaways from CPAC, Day One:
A party still divided
Despite attempts to unify since the party’s devastating 2012 presidential loss, rifts clearly remain within the GOP and were on full display Thursday.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a party establishment leader, received a notably chilly reception from the crowd, even as he brandished a rifle alongside conservative favorite Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) on stage. The scattered applause was an unspoken admission from the crowd that his roles in ending a number of policy standoffs, most recently his vote to raise the debt limit, will not be not soon forgotten.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) threw away any pretense toward unity but tried to reframe the Republican infighting, which complicated its electoral prospects in 2012 and threatens to do so again this cycle, as a “vibrant debate.”
“For the most part, these disagreements have not been over policies or principles — they've been over tactics. So I think we should give each other the benefit of the doubt,” he said.
And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie highlighted another ongoing conflict within the party — between the party’s governors and its leaders in Washington. Sandwiched between a handful of D.C. lawmakers speaking both before and after him, Christie ripped into Washington denizens as “people who only want to talk,” declaring in contrast that “Republican governors across this country have stood up and done things.”
Foreign policy drumbeating
One brief flash of agreement was that speakers did seem to coalesce around opposition to President Obama’s foreign policy, as unrest in Ukraine continues to make headlines.
“Our leadership is so weak and so pathetic. ... They have no respect for our leader, and frankly they, have no respect any longer for our great country," Donald Trump said at one point of China and other world powers.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) emphasized the need for more natural energy production so that the United States can stand up to “petro-tyrants like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”
And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) made a clear play for the position as the party’s leader on foreign policy, delivering a speech centered largely on the international threats that face the nation and the need for the United States to reaffirm its role as the world’s premiere superpower.
He slammed Obama as “a president who believes that, by the sheer force of his personality, he will be able to shape global events,” and called for a more aggressive foreign policy, “deeply rooted in our values and in our moral principles.”
Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton branded Obama himself as the country’s “biggest national security crisis."
“It’s the resurgence of isolationism,” Bolton said. “Ignoring threats to our national security is the Obama doctrine,” adding that the president “couldn’t care less about” the threat of international terrorism.
Red meat as raw as ever
Some of the conservative movement’s most galvanizing issues clearly haven’t lost their potency. ObamaCare, Benghazi and the IRS scandal provided Thursday’s speakers with some of their most reliable applause lines.
In a comment that predictably drew the audience to its feet, Cruz called for "repealing every single word of ObamaCare," calling it a "massive wealth transfer" from young people to everyone else.
McConnell took a jab at the media, Benghazi and the IRS scandal in his speech, which was packed with bait for the base as he faces a conservative primary challenger.
They’re too busy trying to fix Benghazi for Hillary, or playing defense for Harry Reid’s latest smear campaign," he said at one point of the media.
Bolton accused Obama of doing nothing to “avenge” the death of Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, who was killed in the 2012 attack in Benghazi.
“This is a terrible lesson for his adversaries to learn. That under Barack Obama, you can murder his personal representative and get away scot-free,” he said.
And National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre rattled almost all of them off, rapid-fire: “[Democrats] give us Solyndra, Benghazi, Fast and Furious, ObamaCare, massive unemployment, a debt that will choke our grandchildren and one executive order after another right on top of each other,” he said, to cheers from the crowd.
GOP silence spoke volumes
And yet, some of the movement’s usual bread-and-butter issues were notably absent from the discussion on Thursday.
Though the party reaffirmed its commitment to its anti-abortion roots earlier this year at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting, Christie was the only potential candidate to really hammer home the abortion issue, and even then, he framed it in terms beyond the womb.
Christie said, if the party wants to be "pro-life," it also has to focus on policies that help children thrive, because, “when we say we’re proudly pro-life, we have to be pro-life throughout their entire lives.”
He added, on social issues, Democrats are “the party of intolerance, not us.”
And gay rights, a hot topic nationally this week with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s (R) veto of a bill that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples over religious objections, got minimal airtime.
Rubio remarked his positions in opposition of gay marriage and abortion don’t make him a “bigot,” but none of the speakers made the issue central to their remarks.
And no speaker other than Donald Trump on Thursday mentioned immigration reform, an indication the issue might be dead on arrival with the conservative base, or at least too divisive to pursue at this point in time, even as party leaders agree reform is needed, if the party hopes to compete for the Hispanic vote in 2016.
CPAC still searches for its star
There were no clear breakout stars on Thursday; no speakers electrified the notoriously excitable crowd or brought the audience to their feet for an extended ovation.
Thursday was a day for some of the party’s fresher thinkers — the potential presidential candidates who haven’t yet gotten a national hearing, unlike Friday’s lineup of presidential has-beens.
But none of the potential contenders clearly pulled ahead in the early 2016 horse race. None established themselves as the clear pick of conservatives the way Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) did last year, or rocked the crowd with a surprisingly punchy address like Cruz did in 2013.
On Friday, many of the GOP’s presidential has-beens will take the stage, as will Paul. Conservatives will still be watching to see if any of the old guard can invigorate the party anew.