WASHINGTON– The news that Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) had won the 2010 CPAC presidential straw poll was leaked early, to soften the blow. Before GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio had even begun to click through a Powerpoint presentation that shared the results, reporters were informed of Paul’s easy, 31 percent victory over nine Republicans tipped as serious 2012 contenders. Those reporters started to write stories on Paul’s surprise win, waiting for the official announcement — and an explosion of jeering and booing in the main ballroom of the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. Sighing with relief, press aides for the annual conservative conference made sure that the on-site media had heard that reaction.
Just as relieved were mainstream GOP activists and traditional conservative thinkers who were pondering ways to make the party electable again. “I think Mitt Romney’s 22 percent was impressive,” said Rob Willington, a Massachusetts Republican strategist who’d designed GOTV technology for now-Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.). He was reflecting on the poll — not too significant, he said — in Murphy’s, a bar a few blocks from the hotel, late Saturday. Romney’s forces, he said, hadn’t lifted a finger; Paul’s had campaigned for the prize.
In another corner of the bar, conservative author David Frum, editor of Frum Forum (formerly New Majority), brushed off the result. “The Paul people all voted and the others didn’t,” said Frum. “I’m hoping it’s a matter of self-selection.”
The importance of minimizing Paul’s win united conservative activists like almost nothing else that came from the three-day conference. Even Brad Dayspring — who, as a spokesman for GOP whip Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), counts on Paul for “no” votes — fired off two tweets dismissing the result. But the 2,395 ballots cast were a CPAC record, up from the 1,757 cast in 2009, when Mitt Romney scored his third conservative win. And moments after the Paul results were booed, the crowd gave a roaring ovation to radio and Fox News host Glenn Beck, who rewarded it with a 56-minute lecture on “progressivism’s” war on American values with historical lessons — the evil of the Federal Reserve, the destructiveness of Woodrow Wilson, the folly of “spreading democracy” — that had featured prominently in Paul’s speech, too.
For as little attention as it got — for the first time in anyone’s memory, the news cycle-driving Drudge Report did not even run with the news — Paul’s victory in an unscientific straw poll revealed plenty about the state of conservatism. Narrowly, it revealed that Paul’s quixotic 2008 bid for president created a significant and growing movement of libertarian-minded teens and twentysomethings whose role in the conservative coalition will become more clear outside of CPAC. More broadly, it provided a look at the ideological hardening going on within the conservative movement as it girds for the 2010 elections. According to some polls, the Republican Party is on track to recover control of Congress and have a voice again in how America is governed. At CPAC, there was far less attention on how the party would govern America than on the need to disavow its past, popular embraces of “big government” — and on the need to embrace a hardcore libertarian philosophy that views environmentalism and the progressive movement as fatal threats to freedom.
Paul’s youthful crusade of hopeful libertarians — its size and its enthusiasm — was one of the real surprises of the conference. Paul-inspired or affiliated groups occupied five booths in the event’s exhibit hall; the Campaign for Liberty (the organization he launched after folding his 2008 presidential bid), Young Americans for Liberty (the student group launched at the same time), Students for Liberty, the Ladies of Liberty Alliance, and the Future of Freedom Foundation. Libertarian CPAC attendees packed room after room for lectures by the likes of Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano and likely 2012 presidential candidate Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico. They passed out a documentary about the Paul campaign, “For Liberty,” and copies of “Young American Revolution,” a magazine for college students with contributions ranging from an essay on economics by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) to a Wake Forest University student’s tipsheet on how she organized a blockbuster speech by Paul on her campus.
The Paul-inspired groups were responsible for one of the pivotal moments of the three-day conference. On Friday, Students for Liberty president Alexander McCobin used his speech in the rapid-fire “Two-Minute Activist” line-up to “commend CPAC for inviting GOProud,” a gay Republican group. That got a rise out of Ryan Sobra, an anti-gay activist who followed McCobin and condemned the conference for inviting the group. When he was booed, Sobra confusingly attacked Jeff Frazee — the head of Young Americans for Liberty. But he was onto something — it was the presence of Paul fans, who had crowded into the room for his upcoming speech, that meant Sobra would get more boos than cheers.
“I was thanking my lucky stars that the Ron Paul fans were there,” said Jimmy LaSalva, the executive director of GOProud, in a Saturday interview. “The Campaign for Liberty deserves a lot of credit for setting that tone.”
Paul’s influence surfaced in other ways that were less helpful for CPAC’s optics. The far-right John Birch Society, of which Paul has been a longtime supporter, made a showy return to the mainstream conservative fold with a co-sponsorship and booth at CPAC; because the organization helpfully offered free, spacious merchandise bags, plenty of CPAC attendees walked around sporting JBS logos. Oath Keepers, a year-old coalition of right-wing military veterans, helped distribute copies of the Paul documentary — a favor to Paul activist Michael Moresco, who had won the organization’s “citizen activist of the year” award for biking from the Statue of Liberty to Alcatraz Prison. “It’s the direction I think this country’s headed,” said Moresco — from freedom to imprisonment.
But far from being controversial, Paul’s critique of conservatism — that the GOP lost its way by growing government and must promise to slash and abolish as much as possible if it wins again — was a constant theme. It was present on Saturday when Ann Coulter, a CPAC star for whom the ballroom filled up an hour before her speech began, argued that conservatives needed to abolish the IRS and the CIA. When she ran out of jokes about John Edwards’s sexuality and Ted Kennedy’s drinking, she suggested that the GOP needed a no-to-everything philosophy similar to Paul’s. She paused and mugged when that inspired a chant of “End the Fed” — a Paul-divined slogan.
“I’m curious about this movement over there for eliminating the Fed,” said Coulter. “Yes, End the Fed.” She answered a Paul fan’s question by admitting that “if Ron Paul supports it and it’s not about foreign policy, I’m for it.”
On the surface, rhetoric like that contradicted a much-noticed CPAC theme — praise for George W. Bush. Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, said that Bush boosterism was a friendly show of support for “our guy” after eight years of drubbing by liberals. And that was it.
“For seven years he didn’t speak at CPAC,” said Norquist. “The eighth year we didn’t want him and he showed up because CPAC was one of the only places he could speak to without being booed. Here was a man who deliberately divorced himself from the movement.” Medicare Part D, the Department of Homeland Security, and all the rest of it hadn’t been forgotten.
Outside of the conference, some critics accused activists of a kind of nihilism that wouldn’t be productive for Republicans. “CPAC has becoming increasingly more libertarian and less Republican over the last years,” grumbled Mike Huckabee on his Fox News show, “one of the reasons I didn’t go this year.”
Huckabee would only allow that the Paul win reflected “the anger and the mood” that was fueling Tea Party protests and Democratic losses in some key elections. In a separate straw poll question on activists’ opinions of conservative leaders, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) was found to be the most popular figure in Republican politics– 71 percent said they liked him. In the Senate, DeMint has worked to block and filibuster as many Democratic initiatives as possible while proposing government-slashing, entitlement-cutting, brazen bills of the kind Paul’s long discussed. At CPAC, he said he’d rather have a Senate with “30 Marco Rubios” — the Florida candidate for Senate who keynoted the conference — than “60 Arlen Specters.” When I asked him how that made sense in the era of constant filibusters, DeMint said a crisis would lead the way to more pure policy.
“In the short term, we can’t expect to get any of our ideas through,” DeMint said. “But at some point, we’re going to be forced to do something. It’s not going to be so much a matter of political philosophy if we can’t pay our debts and we’re facing default. At that point I think you’re going to see even liberals realize we don’t have any choice. We just need to be in a position where we have enough conservatives to come up with some functional policies to get us out of this.” DeMint shook his head. “I hope it won’t take a complete breakdown for us to come together.”
Paul wasn’t around to enjoy his triumph. On Saturday morning, he returned to his east Texas district to debate three opponents in his early March Republican primary. But before leaving on Friday night, he reflected on how and why his constant refrain for fiscal austerity and abolishing most 20th century government expansion had become Republican dogma.
“When I went back to Congress in 1996, Tom DeLay came out to a function in my district,” Paul told TWI. “He came out of it and he said, ‘You know what? Ron said that 20 years ago! Now it’s the same message and 20 more years.’” Paul turned and stopped to talk with a gushing middle-aged fan.
“And with more credibility on the economics!” he said.