The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was a success–surprisingly. The venue was inconveniently outside the District of Columbia. The media were focused on controversial issues like gay marriage and controversial personalities like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Morale among conservatives had been low since the November elections. Yet the conference mustered new energy and excitement in five key ways.
1. Momentum behind new issues. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)’s recent filibuster over drones and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’s clash with Democrats over the assault weapons ban last week gave the conference a boost. Nothing motivates grass-roots conservatives more than the sense that they are on the front lines of a constitutional battle. Those contests, and the recent political defeat for President Barack Obama over the budget sequester, gave CPAC the sense that, as Cruz told the audience in his keynote address, “We are winning.”
2. Inspiration from Andrew Breitbart. Though he died over a year ago, Breitbart still inspires the conservative movement like no other leader can. Several standing-room-only panel discussions were devoted to the man and his career. The Breitbart team was ubiquitous throughout the conference, breaking stories, throwing parties, and clashing with leftists as usual, even while challenging fellow conservatives to embrace debate.
3. Pushback from defense hawks. Contrary to the mainstream media narrative, the big policy clash at CPAC was not over gay marriage but over the war against terror. The Rand Paul surge seemed to move defense issues lower down on the agenda. Even the CPAC straw poll was biased against hawks. National-defense conservatives fought back in several panel discussions and in the Breitbart News session for “the Uninvited.”
4. The new–conservative?–pope. The election of Pope Francis the day before CPAC began, though half a world away, created a festive mood around the conference itself. Though some Catholic conservatives I spoke to had a wait-and-see approach, others were happy about his focus on the Gospels and the traditional teachings of the Church.
5. Promising new leaders. The conference featured several possible contenders for 2016–not just straw poll winner Rand Paul and the youthful Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), but also Gov. Scott Walker and fellow Wisconsinite Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), among others. There is a renewed feeling that conservatives are just one great candidate away from a political revival that will overcome the losses of 2012 and prepare the way for a Reagan-esque renewal.