NATIONAL HARBOR, MD — Greetings from the calm before the storm at the Gaylord Resort, a few hours before Donald Trump will speak to what has been an enthusiastic, energized crowd of supporters. Security lines have the massive throngs mainly waiting to make it to the main concourse of CPAC, where they have crowded the hallways and filled the main ballroom since opening on Thursday. Even at this hour, the audience has filled the room for the early presentations as people wait for the Trump address, scheduled to start at 3 pm ET today.
Thus far, this has been among the most energetic and single-minded CPACs of my experience. As I wrote earlier at The Week, the organizers put the 2020 election in the starkest terms in a bid to unite the fractious Right, and it has largely paid off:
Trump’s qualifications for that job may have been part of the discussion at CPAC under different circumstances, but no longer. Even the MAGA agenda will take second place to the existential necessity of stopping a socialist from winning the White House.
CPAC’s agenda already reflects this reinvigorated focus. Eight of the presentations at the conference are specifically dedicated to socialism, such as Thursday morning’s session on “Socialism: Wrecker of Nations and Destroyer of Societies,” emceed by former Trump administration national-security official KT McFarland. Half of those events are main-stage sessions as opposed to breakout sessions, showing the heightened focus on this mission. …
To be sure, the conference will have plenty of training sessions for organizers and discussions of other policy areas. The most prominent theme, however, will be the call to arms against socialism. Attendees will have the opportunity to learn about “Exposing and Defeating the Socialist Plot to Hijack America” in one session, or to hear “the Unshackled Voices of Socialist Regimes.” Some will learn “words that work in persuading others [against] socialism” in one breakout session, or find out how to beat “Socialism & The Great Awokening” from the main stage.
The agenda has its own message to activists — emphasize “socialism.” The words “liberal” and “progressive” are entirely absent from this agenda. In any other cycle, that would be seen as either hyperbole or an anachronism. Sanders’ rise in the Democratic primary has made it both timely and at least within reach of Sanders’ own rhetoric, especially after his remarks about Castro and the communist regime in China this week.
Of course, being an election year, the focus on winning in 2020 would have been more or less singular anyway. In 2008 and in 2012, both years in which I covered CPAC, the primaries still hadn’t played all the way out, so there was considerable debate over the relative qualities of the challengers, as there was in 2016 for that matter. In 2008, as I recall, the fall of the last conservative activist hope to John McCain’s primary juggernaut caused an outpouring of grief and frustration. (Fun fact: That conservative activist hope was Mitt Romney, who announced his campaign suspension the first night of CPAC.) I didn’t attend CPAC in 2004, the last time a Republican incumbent president ran for election, but one presumes that the conference that year didn’t focus much on division points and policy differences within the GOP. They would have been gearing up to fight John Kerry and pushing electoral unity rather than philosophical debate.
Thus, it’s no surprise to see this CPAC’s singular focus on the election ahead, especially as a contest between “America vs Socialism,” as the signs proclaim here. That is, it’s no surprise to anyone except the New York Times:
CPAC has been transformed from a gathering of libertarians where establishment Republicans mingled with fringe conservative activists into a stage for Mr. Trump and his top advisers and allies to road-test winning messages for the campaign trail. Republicans not on board with defending the president and his agenda, like Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, were disinvited from the conference this year.
Ahem. The Conservative Political Action Conference has been a gathering of conservatives throughout its 47-year run. Libertarians have been welcome, and at times have had a louder voice than they presently do, but the character of CPAC hasn’t been a “gathering of libertarians.” Even during the Ron/Rand Paul era, libertarians took a back seat to social conservatism and Reaganesque national-security policies, the latter perhaps even more so then than this particular year.
For never Trump conservatives, however, the experience of attending the conference was lonely and disheartening.
“CPAC should have really been a wake-up call to me about what was going on in the party,” said Lucy Caldwell, an adviser to Joe Walsh, the former congressman from Illinois who briefly challenged Mr. Trump for the Republican presidential nomination.
“It used to be a place where the radical fringe could kind of let their hair down amidst think tank people and mainstream Republicans,” said Ms. Caldwell, who attended the conference for the first time in years. “Now, it’s their house.”
If you have to reach out to Never Trump figures to get your gee-isn’t-CPAC-disappointing hot take, I’d argue that tends to prove its success. There are legitimate beefs about excluding Romney, which seemed tacky, and perhaps one could even argue that the breakout sessions could have been more policy-oriented, but “Never Trumpers dislike Trump support at CPAC” is not exactly a stunning revelation. And having CPAC focused on motivating activists to unite to keep a Republican incumbent in office, especially one fulfilling the judicial mandate of the conservative movement like none other, rather than dividing them on policy and comportment issues is not much of a scoop, either. The “should we keep Trump” debate has already taken place, and the nays lost big when no one of consequence stepped up to challenge him in the GOP primaries.
Thus far, CPAC seems to be a smashing success in energizing the party’s core base. Our newest member of the Townhall media empire Larry O’Connor caught up with me to discuss the energy and the mission of CPAC, as well as to affirm our greatest fear — running afoul of our colleagues at Twitchy.