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 Romney, 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 Pence 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.
Trump’s complete control of this venerable right-wing forum is all the more remarkable considering the 2016 poll was won by Ted Cruz, followed by Marco Rubio, 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 Biden 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.
There were a few speakers not totally wedded to the ex-president: Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Mike Lee of Utah.
Chiefly, there were Trump cheerleaders. Featured slots were given to Cruz — back from Cancun, Mexico — and Missouri’s Josh Hawley. 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 Nunes, Ohio’s Jim Jordan, Mo Brooks 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 Ryan 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.
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 Moore, 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 Obama’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.