The CPAC conference has come in for a lot of justified criticism about excluding popular Republicans like Governors Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell. The annual right-wing jamboree is being trashed in the mainstream media as the living, breathing example of why the GOP loses elections since it is oriented toward ideological activists rather than expanding the party’s big tent. But such jibes miss the point about the event. It is by and for the party’s base, not independents, and like any similar gathering of liberal Democrats the response of participants to speakers is a fair measure of what will fire up the people who will do the groundwork in any future election. While the Republicans need to work at recasting their image if they are to win the White House again, no party can succeed without being able to energize their core supporters.
That’s why one shouldn’t dismiss the cheers received today at CPAC by two of the leading contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination as mere noise. Both Marco Rubio and Rand Paul were in good form, articulating some of their favorite themes to the faithful. But while Rubio’s speech seemed aimed exactly at those swing voters, or at least those who might be persuaded to back a presentable Republican, Paul’s remarks—like his filibuster earlier this month—seemed geared more toward winning over the people who vote in Republican primaries. While Rubio’s speech was on point and well received, there isn’t much doubt about who is the senator that can best be described as the GOP flavor of the month.
Rubio’s CPAC address seemed very much like a rehash of his response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech with an extended appeal to the concerns of the middle class. Along with the now obligatory jokes about drinking water (which are getting a little tired), Rubio scored by pointing out that the working poor aren’t freeloaders or natural liberals. His rhetorical point that the old GOP ideas about freedom don’t need revising was both true and appealed to the best instincts of conservatives.
Rubio burnished his conservative bona fides while also demonstrating his mainstream appeal, but Paul’s speech showed that he knows how to throw red meat to a crowd that is starving for a leader who will directly confront President Obama and the liberals. From its start, it was a challenge to the president and seemed more like an audition for a caucus or primary audience than a conference address. Sounding the same themes that made his filibuster such a hit, Paul seems to have hit a nerve with conservatives who are tired of compromise and long for someone to stand up against the pull of big government. Republicans of all ages, and not just the kids in college dorms, also like his calling out the party leadership as being “stale and moss-covered.” By combining his libertarian domestic agenda with an attack on foreign aid to countries like Egypt and the mythical threat of domestic drone strikes, he has also managed to make his outlier views on foreign policy seem mainstream. It lacked everything but an open declaration of his candidacy and, as reports indicate, the professionally-made “Stand With Rand” signs show that he is already in full campaign mode.
As Paul’s father Ron knows all too well, winning the CPAC straw poll is no guarantee of winning the White House. But it is a start. Comparing any of the other potential contenders to Paul at this point is unfair since he is obviously committed to a run while the others, included Rubio and Christie, seem nowhere close to a decision as to whether to throw their hats in the ring. But it would be folly for any Republican—especially the large number of conservatives who disagree strongly with Paul’s neo-isolationist approach to foreign policy—to ignore the fact that he seems to have a leg up on everyone else in the long slog toward 2016.