The 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) will open this week amidst an air of uncertainty in the conservative movement. This CPAC is not unlike the 2009 conference, in the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s first election, when delegates struggled to muster their spirits until the rousing keynote address by Rush Limbaugh on Saturday night (until then, the highlight had been Jonathan Krohn’s oddball debut).
This time, in addition to the aftermath of a tough election loss, CPAC faces the burden of a fight over the exclusion of GOProud, a Republican gay rights group that has been the subject of infighting for years, but never in so public a way as today, after Obama’s own embrace of gay marriage. CPAC also faces criticism from some conservatives over its refusal to invite some Republican leaders, such as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.
In previous years, supporters of former Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX)–a motley mix of sincere libertarians, anti-war activists, and conspiracy theorists–maintained a loud presence but failed to have much of an impact beyond flooding the CPAC presidential straw poll. This year, there will be genuine interest among the rest of the delegates in what the Paul fans have to say, after Sen. Rand Paul’s electrifying filibuster in the Senate last week.
The second-generation Paul, a Tea Party Republican who won in the wave election of 2010, has not been as single-minded as his father in attacking the Federal Reserve, nor has he been as provocative in his foreign policy views. Paul recently visited Israel and earned the ire of some of his father’s supporters for helping block Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s confirmation (before voting for Hagel when a cloture vote finally passed).
Yet Paul has shown a similar skepticism toward foreign entanglements, as well as firm opposition to the expansion of government powers in pursuing terror suspects. Paul’s filibuster focused on the Obama administration’s failure to provide a clear indication that it would not use drone strikes against non-combatant U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. Yet the definition of “non-combatant” Paul used would rule out many strikes in hostile territory.
In addition, Republicans have shown unusual interest in cutting defense spending–not for the sake of doing so, but as part of the “sequester” cuts that were enacted in 2011 as a way of forcing both parties to make a deal on long-term deficits. President Obama’s insistence on raising taxes as part of a “grand bargain,” plus his recent attempts to sow fear about the sequester’s consequences, caused Republicans to rally behind the cuts.
The result was a rare political loss for President Obama, who scrambled to arrange a series of lunches and dinners with the Republican opposition. But Republicans now find themselves supporting a policy whose effect will be to trim a military already struggling with earlier cuts under the Obama administration (defense being the one area in which the president has been eager to cut government spending), amidst new global threats.
The CPAC delegates are also, no doubt, feeling betrayed by several heroes of years past–not just trick-dog acts like Krohn, who has since become liberal, but leaders such as Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who recently agreed to accept Obamacare’s expanded Medicaid funding. McDonnell received a warm welcome at CPAC in 2010, with a strong group of supporters in the audience; this year, he would likely be booed off the stage.
Despite enduring enmity among conservatives for Obamacare, this year’s conference is not featuring a panel devoted to health care, as it has in previous years (full disclosure: I will be on a panel discussing foreign policy). Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner has chided CPAC for missing the change to float conservative alternatives to Obama’s big-government bungle-in-progress, and “reverting back to their typical hibernation.”
Overall, what CPAC–and the conservative movement in general–lacks are clear leaders. The best hope may be Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), whom the conference organizers wisely chose to deliver this year’s keynote address. Cruz, a Tea Party champion from the early days, has a deep connection with the conservative grassroots, as well as the intellectual heft of Harvard Law. His speech will provide a rare moment of unity in a time of transition.