The annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), often a forum for some of the strongest Republican Party vitriol in recent years, was a distinctly upbeat place on Thursday, with opening speaker Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) going to far as to suggest appropriating President Obama’s mantra of “Hope and Change.”
It’s not that the assembled conservatives have made their peace with the president – the denunciations and criticisms were plentiful – but the sense this year is less that Obama will inevitably destroy the Republic and more that he is simply a problem that can be waited out.
A common theme among the speakers, many of whom are likely contenders for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, is that the country is at a turning point, similar to the one that ushered in the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s.
It is an argument that Cruz himself made in detail only last week, and one that, as opening speaker, he pushed for on Tuesday. Rattling off a list of applause line proposals, such as abolishing the Internal Revenue Service, auditing the Federal Reserve, and “repealing every word of Obamacare,” he left the stage to a standing ovation when he called on the crowd to help lead a new Reagan Revolution.
Others picked up the theme. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) said Republicans are poised to win big in the 2014 midterms because “I think the left is exhausted. Our side is energized, and on Election Day, we’re going to win.”
On social policy, Ryan said Democrats are offering people “a full stomach and an empty soul,” and predicted that Republicans, by becoming the “party of ideas,” are setting the stage for a GOP resurgence in the federal government. He said the current state of the party reminds him of the enthusiasm surrounding Jack Kemp’s supply-side economic proposals of the 1980s. The GOP “is where the action is,” Paul said.
There seemed to be a moment when the mood might tip back to anger, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) appeared on stage grasping a musket. The gun, it turned out, was a present for his retiring colleague, Sen. Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma.
McConnell’s speech was short and to the point. He warmed up the crowd by accusing President Obama of treating the Constitution “worse than a placemat at Denny’s” before castigating Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) for his leadership in the Senate and calling on CPAC attendees to do everything in their power to help Republicans reclaim the Senate in 2014.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took the stage to a loud ovation, trumpeting his successes as a Republican governor in a traditionally Democratic state, and like Rep. Ryan, argued for an aggressive public defense of conservative ideas.
However, he said, ”We don’t get to govern if we don’t win,” and urged the crowd to “charge out” and support Republicans in the 2014 midterms.
More than any of the other morning speakers, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal spent much of his time criticizing President Obama, the bulk of it somewhat snide and personal. Noting the president attended Harvard Law School, Jindal suggested that Obama should sue the school to get his money back.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) focused on foreign policy, comparing the current administration’s policy toward Russia, North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, and other autocratic regimes to the way Rubio imagines Ronald Reagan would have handled them. Unsurprisingly, the imaginary Reagan came out on top.
Taking the stage after Rubio – as many attendees began filing out for lunch - Sen. Mike Lee of Utah put the icing on the Reagan cake. In the late 1970s, he reminded them, Reagan alienated much of the establishment GOP by mounting a primary challenge against Gerald Ford in 1976. Reagan, said Lee, “knew the future of the GOP was not the establishment, but a new Republican Party,” and went about building it.
“It’s time for the Republican Party to stop talking about Ronald Reagan and start acting like him,” Lee said.
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