Opinion | Campaign

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 RomneyTransit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal Schumer leaves door open for second vote on bipartisan infrastructure deal Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor 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 PenceGOP's Banks burnishes brand with Pelosi veto Trump called crowd gathered before Jan. 6 riot 'loving' Jill Biden takes starring role at difficult Olympics 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.

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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 CruzPoll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis US, Germany reach deal on controversial Russian pipeline State, Dems call out Cruz over holds ahead of key Russian talks MORE, followed by Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill to hold platforms accountable for misinformation during health crises | Website outages hit Olympics, Amazon and major banks Senators introduce bipartisan bill to secure critical groups against hackers Hillicon Valley: Senators introduce bill to require some cyber incident reporting | UK citizen arrested in connection to 2020 Twitter hack | Officials warn of cyber vulnerabilities in water systems 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 BidenOvernight Defense: Senate panel adds B to Biden's defense budget | House passes bill to streamline visa process for Afghans who helped US | Pentagon confirms 7 Colombians arrested in Haiti leader's killing had US training On The Money: Senate braces for nasty debt ceiling fight | Democrats pushing for changes to bipartisan deal | Housing prices hit new high in June Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill to hold platforms accountable for misinformation during health crises | Website outages hit Olympics, Amazon and major banks MORE won by 7 million votes, the second-largest margin of the 21st century.

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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.

There were a few speakers not totally wedded to the ex-president: Sens. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordDemocrat stalls Biden's border nominee Republican calls on Oklahoma to ban Ben & Jerry's Six takeaways: What the FEC reports tell us about the midterm elections MORE of Oklahoma and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeBiden's misinformation crackdown spotlights partisan divide on content reform Lawmakers unveil measure increasing Congress's control of war authorizations GOP senators invite Yellen to brief them on debt ceiling expiration, inflation 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 HawleyCompetition laws could be a death knell for startup mergers and acquisitions Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee Poll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis 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.

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The familiar Trump stalwarts from the House were on the schedule: California's Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesLawmakers spend more on personal security in wake of insurrection Tucker Carlson claims NSA leaked private emails to journalists McCarthy calls for investigation into claims NSA was spying on Tucker Carlson MORE, Ohio's Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanDemocrats plow ahead with Jan. 6 probe, eyeing new GOP reinforcements S.E. Cupp: 'The politicization of science and health safety has inarguably cost lives' GOP's Banks burnishes brand with Pelosi veto MORE, Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksEx-Sen. Jones rips Mo Brooks over 'irony' remark on Texas Democrats getting COVID-19 Justice in legal knot in Mo Brooks, Trump case Schumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up 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 RyanTrump clash ahead: Ron DeSantis positions himself as GOP's future in a direct-mail piece Cutting critical family support won't solve the labor crisis Juan Williams: Trump's GOP descends into farce MORE laid out a considered conservative agenda.

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.

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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 MooreRoy Moore loses lawsuit against Sacha Baron Cohen Shelby backs ex-aide over Trump-favored candidate in Alabama Senate race Of inmates and asylums: Today's House Republicans make the John Birchers look quaint 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 ObamaBiden's belated filibuster decision: A pretense of principle at work Obama, Springsteen releasing book based on their podcast 10 books that take readers inside the lives of American leaders 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.

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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.