DENVER — An hour after she gave a speech calling for the impeachment of President Barack Obama, Sarah Palin was only halfway across the lobby of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Downtown Denver, mobbed by many of the more than 3,000 attendees of the fifth annual Western Conservative Summit. Walled in by recording cell phones, tablets and long-lens cameras, Palin gave an endless series of sometimes repeat hugs, smiled for the cameras and thanked those around her for “having her back.”
Hosted by Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) prohibited from electioneering activity, the Western Conservative Summit has been billed by conservative commentators like former Rep. Allen West as the “premiere summer destination for Americans who still believe in freedom, family, faith and the future.”
Throughout the conference, in order to comply with tax code, speakers associated directly with the institute referred to candidates and politicians they support euphemistically, by reference to red meat, specifically sirloin, and to those they oppose as “eating too much tofu.”
The master of this approach, and the man behind the curtain at what might be the most technologically tight political mega-conference in the land, is former state senator and the director of the Centennial Institute, John Andrews. A former Nixon speechwriter, Andrews was full of jokes and consistently cued the crowd — many of whom were older — as to what would be good tweets in the speeches they’d just heard. He also contributed a few of his own, lines like “I’d really go for a Bob Beauprez buffalo steak” or “Jared Polis… let’s just say he’s eating a lot of tofu.”
Even inclusive of the odd euphemism, the conference was far more about ideology on the right than about specific candidates in specific races — though hypothetical races, particularly the 2016 presidential elections, were certainly on the discussion table.
Palin best encapsulated the summit’s ideological focus, its orientation towards bringing together like-minded people. She was introduced as a victim of the left’s demonization and gave a speech about the “forgotten man,” many of whom, she asserted, were sitting in that very room. The forgotten man, Palin said, knows the dignity of work and still believes in American exceptionalism, but most of all, they want to see Barack Obama out of office.
“No serious person can deny that team Obama has abused the public trust and the constitution,” said Palin to loud cheers, adding that congress must act to impeach, or at least threaten the impeachment, of the president or else the “fabric of America will unravel.”
The fabric of America was of great concern at the summit where the annual theme was “America at its Best.” Aside from Palin, big-name conservative speakers included lawmakers like Reps. Ted Cruz and Michele Bachmann, Gov. Bobby Jindal, and a doctor by the name of Ben Carson.
Carson is a recent star among the conservative, and particularly Tea Party, circles that made up the majority of the summit where “Republican in Name Only,” or “RINO” was nearly as harsh an epithet as “liberal” or “tofu-eater”.
Though his political stances seem largely in line with figures like Palin and Cruz, Carson is more conciliatory in his rhetoric than Palin, who called the current border crisis an “invasion,” and Cruz, who at the summit referred to gun control as “hitting what you’re aiming at.” That may be why Carson took top line in the summit’s straw poll with 22 percent of the vote. Cruz and Palin took the second and third positions respectively.
A pediatric neurosurgeon by trade, Carson rose to political prominence after a speech he gave at Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast that used scripture to critique the President on issues such as education and health care and the nation on values like political correctness.
Carson is now engaged in a nationwide book tour, a la Hillary Clinton, and the subject of a 2016 presidential draft effort “Run Ben Run,” which boasts 17,000 volunteers nationwide. The Ben Carson PAC out-raised the Ready for Hillary PAC last quarter and its total fundraising,$7.2 million, draws near to the Hillary PAC’s $8 million. As noted by The Washington Post, the Carson PAC has spent most of the money they raise on raising more money — a gamble, potentially, designed to raise Carson’s profile for a long-shot presidential campaign.
The Ben Carson for president team was out in force at this year’s summit, among them 19-year-old Chris Adkins of Wayne, West Virginia, who won the Run Ben Run supporters’ video contest. Adkins said he sees Carson as the kind of citizen legislator the framers had in mind and as an exciting new conservative figure with the power to bring together not just Tea Partiers and Republicans but also Independent voters, which is how Adkins identifies.
“We’ve seen people filter everything through ideology in politics — if they don’t agree on ideology they can’t compromise on anything. Dr. Carson is willing to talk to someone who completely opposes him and establish a relationship so that down the road they can work on bigger issues,” said Adkins.
On the opening night of the summit, following prayer, a speech by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and dance performance by The Silhouettes of America’s Got Talent fame, Carson gave a speech that sounded a lot like it was coming from a guy who wants to run for president — though it should be noted Carson hasn’t made any official announcement about what he’ll be doing in 2016.
“Our country is in a lot of trouble, it’s really in critical condition,” said Carson, opening his speech in much the same crisis-oriented vein as Palin. Unlike Palin’s, however, the body of Carson’s speech focused less on the wrongs perpetrated against far-right conservatives in the post Tea Party wave lull and more on what will likely be the major issues of the 2016 presidential election, beginning with the one closest to home — divisions within the right.
Carson urged those listening, conservatives who tend to vote for Tea Party candidates like fellow headliners Cruz and Palin, not to “take their marbles and go home” if a candidate they feel is a RINO wins a primary where they vote.
“We’re gonna have a Tea Party-RINO get together and we’re gonna take back the country. That’s what we have to do,” Carson said to escalating cheers.
Carson asserted that conservatives are better off voting for someone they agree with 90 percent of the time than not voting and ending up with someone they disagree with 100 percent of the time.
Many of the conservatives in the room likely agreed with much of what Carson put forward. He said he was pro-Second Amendment but wanted to make room for conversations about how to keep heavy weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill. He acknowledged that everyone in the room was an immigrant in some sense, but asserted that the nation’s laws must be followed and the borders secured — using drones if necessary. He said the Affordable Care Act fails by putting bureaucrats between doctors and patients and proposed a system of health savings plans instead. He asserted his belief in small government, the free market, trickle down economics and American exceptionalism.
“Right now the world is like a third grade class with no teacher in it — it’s going crazy,” Carson said in reference to the U.S.’s responsibilities regarding foreign policy.
Vernon Robinson, a long-time conservative politico who recently ran for congress out of North Carolina, is now the Run Ben Run campaign director. Though he says there’s a civil war afoot in the Republican Party, particularly around issues of race and religion, Robinson is passionate about seeing Carson — a conservative, highly educated, black Christian — on the ballot and calls being the director of the recruitment effort “the best job on the planet.”
“I always wanted to be in desperate fight to save the republic and now I am,” said Robinson, echoing the summit’s focus on preserving “America at its Best.”
“We only have one sacred job, to give to our children and grandchildren an America at least as free as the one we are born in. We’ve literally failed so far … If you want to restore the republic, heal the nation and make America America again, join the Ben Carson for America committee!”
[Photo by Tessa Cheek]