SPONSORED:

CPAC, all-in for Trump, is not what it used to be

The Conservative Political Action Committee's annual presidential preference poll over the years was won four times by Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyAdvocacy groups pushing Biden to cancel student debt for disabled 15 Senate Republicans pledge to oppose lifting earmark ban The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - All US adults now eligible for COVID vaccines MORE, three times by Jack Kemp and once by George W. Bush.

None would be welcome at the conference held this week in Orlando, Fla.

This right-wing confab now is more TPAC — as in Trump — than CPAC. The former president reasserted his dominance of the Republican Party through 2024. Differences, much less dissent, are verboten. Former Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceSicknick had two strokes, died of natural causes after Capitol riot The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - All US adults now eligible for COVID vaccines The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - All US adults can get vaccine; decision Friday on J&J vax MORE isn't attending, knowing he'd face a hostile reception after refusing last month to violate the law and reject the electoral votes on the presidential election.

ADVERTISEMENT

Trump's complete control of this venerable right-wing forum is all the more remarkable considering the 2016 poll was won by Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward Cruz15 Senate Republicans pledge to oppose lifting earmark ban 'Real Housewives of the GOP' — Wannabe reality show narcissists commandeer the party Is the antidote to bad speech more speech or more regulation? MORE, followed by Marco RubioMarco Antonio Rubio15 Senate Republicans pledge to oppose lifting earmark ban Parade of 2024 GOP hopefuls court House conservatives Hillicon Valley: Biden administration sanctions Russia for SolarWinds hack, election interference MORE, with Trump a distant third. The co-favorite for vice president then was Ohio Gov. John Kasich, now a prominent anti-Trump Republican.

The agenda and speakers this year underscore the Trumpification of this once vibrant, if a bit nutty, group.

There were eight breakout sessions on election fraud and security, mirroring Trump's false claim the presidential election was “stolen.” Actually, President BidenJoe BidenObama, Clinton reflect on Mondale's legacy Biden, Harris commend Mondale in paving the way for female VP Mondale in last message to staff: 'Joe in the White House certainly helps' MORE won by 7 million votes, the second-largest margin of the 21st century.

There were multiple sessions on China-bashing, a Trump staple; a forum on Israel and anti-Semitism was spared the embarrassment of discussing a fellow speaker with the last-minute nixing of Young Pharaoh, whose conspiracy theory promotions were outdone only by his anti-Jewish rants.

Some choices only can be explained by Trump fealty. Bernard Kerik — the former New York City police commissioner convicted of eight felonies, sentenced to four years and pardoned by Trump — was on a law enforcement panel. A panel on citizenship featured Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a down-the-line Trump backer under indictment for securities fraud. Last fall, at least four of Paxton’s top aides accused him of bribery and abuse of power.

ADVERTISEMENT

There were a few speakers not totally wedded to the ex-president: Sens. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordRubio and bipartisan group of senators push to make daylight saving time permanent Senate inches toward COVID-19 vote after marathon session Ron Johnson grinds Senate to halt, irritating many MORE of Oklahoma and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeHillicon Valley: Apple approves Parler's return to App Store | White House scales back response to SolarWinds, Microsoft incidents | Pressure mounts on DHS over relationship with Clearview AI 15 Senate Republicans pledge to oppose lifting earmark ban Apple approves Parler's return to App Store MORE of Utah.

Chiefly, there were Trump cheerleaders. Featured slots were given to Cruz — back from Cancun, Mexico — and Missouri's Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyHillicon Valley: Apple approves Parler's return to App Store | White House scales back response to SolarWinds, Microsoft incidents | Pressure mounts on DHS over relationship with Clearview AI 15 Senate Republicans pledge to oppose lifting earmark ban Is the antidote to bad speech more speech or more regulation? MORE. They’re the ones who led the effort to block the legitimate tally of electoral votes. That was Jan. 6 — when a Trump-incited mob assaulted the Capitol to stop that vote.

The familiar Trump stalwarts from the House were on the schedule: California's Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesFormer GOP operative installed as NSA top lawyer resigns Sunday shows preview: Russia, US exchange sanctions; tensions over policing rise; vaccination campaign continues Overnight Defense: Administration says 'low to moderate confidence' Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties | 'Low to medium risk' of Russia invading Ukraine in next few weeks | Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats he MORE, Ohio's Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanTop House Republicans ask Harris for meeting on border The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - All US adults can get vaccine; decision Friday on J&J vax Waters: Fauci 'was being bullied' by Jordan during hearing MORE, Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - All US adults can get vaccine; decision Friday on J&J vax Republicans fret over divisive candidates The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - World mourns the death of Prince Philip MORE of Alabama, and Lauren Boebert, the Colorado freshman Q-Anon supporter who wants to pack heat in the Capitol. There were Trump Cabinet members and, of course, Don Jr.

This 47-year-old conference has always had some kooks: perennial candidate Alan Keyes, former California Congressman Bob Dornan and racists such as North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms.

But there also were vibrant debates on taxes — a flat tax or consumption tax with low rates — or on globalism versus isolationism. There were some upbeat conservative themes: Ronald Reagan kicked off the first CPAC with an ode to America as that “city on a hill.” A dozen years ago, Congressman Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanOn The Money: Senate confirms Gensler to lead SEC | Senate GOP to face off over earmarks next week | Top Republican on House tax panel to retire Trump faces test of power with early endorsements Lobbying world MORE laid out a considered conservative agenda.

ADVERTISEMENT

Today, there is an important debate in Republican and conservative circles on direction. None of that was on display in Orlando.

Anything Trump dominates is a closed circle.

In 2018, conservative columnist Mona Charen was escorted out of the building after she chastised Republicans for supporting sexual abusers, including Trump and Alabama Senate candidate Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Trump faces test of power with early endorsements CPAC, all-in for Trump, is not what it used to be MORE, who had been accused of assaulting teenage girls.

It's also become a big money machine. The CPAC website offered VIP access to “Gold” donors forking out $7,500 per ticket. Just to watch routine proceedings cost $330 — and when I called, they offered me a “Platinum” package for $15,000. David Keene, who for a quarter-century ran the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC, recalled in a conversation with me the contrast with when Reagan, the godfather of CPAC, “told me not to price out those that had worked for him.”

To be clear, I thought Reagan's policies did much more harm than good and that Ryan's agenda and critique of Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama, Clinton reflect on Mondale's legacy Polls suggest House Democrats will buck midterm curse and add to their ranks Boehner: Mass shootings 'embarrassing our country' MORE’s was deeply flawed. For several years, on a cable television program, Charen and I usually disagreed. I once debated the legendary conservative columnist Bob Novak at a CPAC conference; he pitched a shutout.

But past conventions advanced ideas, albeit right-wing ones, that made for good debates.

The Trump mantra in Orlando was negative and dark.

That now is the dominant force in America's conservative political party.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.