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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

CPAC Review: False Start and Jockeying for Position

The release of the president’s FY 2012 budget and the beginning of a protracted budget battle distracted a lot of attention from the denoument of the CPAC conference, which concluded on Saturday. Suffice it to say that if CPAC was indeed the “starter’s gun” for the 2012 Republican presidential nominating contest, it was something of a false start, since it changed little or nothing.
First of all, the “barometer” value of the presidential straw poll held at CPAC was spoiled, for the second year in a row, by a heavy turnout from Ron Paul’s collegiate cadres, who would have won the poll for him even if he had spent his time at the podium hustling gold coins. You could try to make a case that this or that candidate’s single-digit finish in the straw poll was more significant than another’s, but any survey won by Ron Paul is suspect as a measurement of conservative grassroots support.
Second of all, none of the would-be presidents at CPAC bombed and none broke away from the pack. You can read lots of assessments of the speeches (I’d recommend those by Politico‘s Alexander Burns and Slate‘s Dave Weigel). But even the consensus “top speaker,” Mitch Daniels, probably didn’t do much to sway social conservatives with his double-down justification for elevating fiscal issues above all other concerns. (If you believe that legalized abortion is a second Holocaust, then you aren’t going to be convinced to stop focusing on that even if you agree with Daniels that public debt is “the new Red Menace.”) Yes, Tim Pawlenty showed some fire, but didn’t quite get audience members beating on each other with big sticks. And yes, by touting his record as governor Haley Barbour finally gave conservatives a reason to like him other than his prodigious fund-raising ability, but it won’t be easy over time to convince actual voters that Mississippi is some sort of model for the rest of America.
At the same time, extreme dark horses like Herman Cain and Rick Santorum and John Bolton didn’t do anything to create some credibility-earning buzz or get big donors reaching for their checkbooks. It’s hard to conclude that Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee lost much of anything by skipping the whole show.
It’s clear attendees had a good, rousing time (pure entertainment offerings like Donald Trump helped), but fissures in the conservative movement were not healed and may have grown deeper. Libertarian/neocon tensions were definitely heightened by the disruption of a Cheney/Rumsfeld lovefest by Paulites. The furor over gay conservative group GOProud’s inclusion at the event–puncuated by the denunciation of “bigots” by GOProud leader Chris Barron–appears to have led to a ban on the group for next year’s conference. And Islamophobic attacks on Grover Norquist for defending Muslims for America participation at CPAC took on a whole new dimension after the conference when RedState proprietor Erick Erickson called on conservatives to find a new DC gathering point and abandon Norquist’s famous Wednesday meetings.
So at a conference where genuine diversity of opinion was limited, and pretty much everyone joined in trashing Barack Obama as a socialist and a terrorist-loving wimp, the big concern remained rooting out heresy rather than helping Republicans settle on a presidential nominee. No wonder conservatives continue to idolize Ronald Reagan. They could use a little more leadership right now.

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