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Convention review: CPAC rocks, but not for Pawlenty

Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) during their annual meeting on Friday.
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) during their annual meeting on Friday.

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which wrapped up this past weekend in Washington, was probably the most robust, energized conclave of conservatives and libertarians in memory. In fact, compared to last year’s funereal conference, which came on the heels of Barack Obama’s seminal election, this year’s event was by any measure a blockbuster event.

That is, for virtually everyone but Tim Pawlenty. The Minnesota governor finished with an embarrassing 6 percent of the vote in the CPAC presidential straw poll, always an interesting indicator of where candidates rate among conservative activists. For Pawlenty, who already has invested no small amounts of time and money in New Hampshire, and who had addressed the CPAC gathering on Friday, the results had to be discouraging.

To be fair to the governor, only 2,400 votes were cast in the poll from among the more than 10,000 CPAC attendees — hardly a representative sampling. That fact alone should dampen the euphoria, if any, that the winner, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, was experiencing. The libertarian gadfly pulled 31 percent, followed by Mitt Romney with 22 percent and Sarah Palin with 7 percent. Oddly, Palin chose not to attend CAPC this year, and another conservative luminary, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, addressed a small gathering of supporters via video-conference. Hmmm.

Pawlenty’s problem at CPAC extended beyond his dismal showing in the straw poll. During his remarks Friday to the convention, he foolishly sought to use Tiger Woods’ marital troubles as a metaphorical springboard, urging conservatives to “take a page out of her [Elin Woods’] play book and take a 9-iron and smash the window out of big government.”

Who writes this stuff? It was clumsy and embarrassing, and while it garnered a few cheers in Washington, it fell flat everywhere else. Asked about it Sunday on the NBC show “Meet the Press,” the governor replied lamely that “people still enjoy a sense of humor.” Yes, well… .

Beck as keynote speaker
By the way, a salient fact from the CPAC weekend was that more than 50 percent of the 10,000-plus attendees were college students under the age of 25. Not exactly your country-club Republicans.

CPAC organizers chose Fox News personality Glenn Beck as the keynote speaker, a choice that left me underwhelmed. I am not a Beck fan, and rarely watch his TV show, which, I have learned, puts me in a distinct minority among Americans. Beck is the second highest rated personality on television, surpassed only by the legendary Oprah Winfrey. Who knew?

The speech — a 56-miniute stem-winder on progressives, out-of-control government spending and deficits that pose an imminent threat to the nation — had the packed ballroom of the Wardman Marriott on its feet and cheering itself hoarse. It was unlike anything I have heard in a very long time. Politico gives an excellent, innuendo-free report here.

What struck even the most casual observer was Beck’s decision to go after the GOP rather than dwell on the failures of the Obama administration and its acolytes in Congress, fat targets though they be. He agreed with former Vice President Dick Cheney, who, in a surprise visit to CPAC on Thursday, said that 2010 likely very will be a good year for Republicans.

Yes it is, but, said Beck, “It’s not enough just to not suck as much as the other side.”

Moreover, he castigated Republicans, especially former President George W. Bush, calling them the party that just spends, rather than the party that taxes and spends. It was a stinging rebuke that resonated extremely well with the audience.

“I have not heard people in the Republican Party yet admit they have a [spending] problem,” Beck said, adding that he’s waiting for a “come-to-Jesus” moment.

My wife, Linda, who is a liberal Democrat and could care less what Beck has to say about anything, also thought the speech was exceptionally good. His reading of the entire poem by Emma Lazarus that graces the Statue of Liberty was brilliant. No wonder his TV ratings are through the roof.

‘The Mount Vernon Statement’
One last thing: The day before CPAC got underway, a group of conservative elder statesmen (with apologies to National Review’s estimable Kathryn Jean Lopez) gathered at George Washington’s estate outside the capital to unveil what it called “The Mount Vernon Statement.”

It was inspired by The Sharon Statement, the founding document of Young Americans for Freedom crafted in September 1960 by college students at the Connecticut home of the late William F. Buckley Jr.

The key phrase in the Mount Vernon declaration was a call for a return to what it called “constitutional conservatism” — as opposed to what, “unconstitutional conservatism”? This is an era of mindless catch phrases, and who could forget “compassionate conservatism”? And don’t even get me started on “hope” and “change we can believe in.”

Christopher Buckley, Bill’s wonderfully irreverent son, eviscerated this all rather handily in his column at The Daily Beast, citing Sam Tanenhaus’ remark that “the new [statement] seems a windbaggy Cliff’s Notes on The Federalist Papers.”

And so it does. But there was an interesting coda to the email on the signing ceremony that a friend in New York sent me. The Mount Vernon Statement website at first listed those folks from across the nation who joined in signing the document. (After more than 24,500 people afixed their names, the website closed it for fear of crashing the site.)

Among the first 100 or so signers I saw, more than 15 were from Minnesota. Impressive. When I attempted to track down the telephone numbers of six of the signatories, the three whom I managed to get refused to comment. “I don’t care who you are,” one man said, “I don’t trust the media.” When I attempted to gently make my case, I found myself talking to dead air.

That disgust, fear, loathing — whatever you want to call it — is not his fault, I suspect, but ours. That is a topic for another day.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 02/22/2010 - 11:31 am.

    I found Pawlenty’s “joke” to be more than just in bad taste. We just had a suicide tax protester terrorist crashing a plane into a government building. Pawlenty encouraging enraged people to unleash their rage by taking nine irons to government windows is inflammatory. When a governor advocates violence against the government, he is very clearly out of bounds. I expect this from Glenn Beck, not from an elected official.

  2. Submitted by Mark Radosevich on 02/22/2010 - 11:37 am.

    I have a small quibble with an otherwise nice article. Beck’s viewership peaks around 4 million per night, and is usually closer to 3 million (as of October). If we count all people who watch his show at least once a week, the total is probably no more than 5% of eligible voters. There is no way that those who rarely or never watch his show could be fewer than 90% of Americans.

    Nonetheless, it does feel sometimes like the majority of Americans watch him. Fox News dominates cable news ratings, which makes me all the more puzzled by the way their personalities, and viewers, demonize the media, as the signatory did in declining Bonafield’s interview. What media do they feel oppressed by?

  3. Submitted by Dave Thul on 02/22/2010 - 12:36 pm.

    I don’t put too much stock in Pawlenty’s 4th place finish mostly because the first place pick, Ron Paul, is hardly representative of the majority of conservatives. Pawlenty is a quiet conservative, which is good for getting things done as a governor but puts him at a disadvantage for national media exposure.

    As for the folks not wanting to talk about their signatures, that hardly seems unreasonable. Mark mentioned that Fox dominates the ratings, but that is (in my opinion) not because conservatives are a larger audience, but because conservatives largely have only one place to get the views they want to hear-Fox. Liberals and progressives have their pick of the networks, the cable channels as well as NPR, which all to a varying degree cater to a more left of center view. Just like having 3 liberals running against one conservative in a general election-the liberals split the vote and the conservative puts up big numbers.

    So if the folks who signed the petition get a call from a reporter who isn’t with Fox, is it far fetched that they might assume the bias or intent of the caller?

  4. Submitted by Tim Walker on 02/22/2010 - 01:40 pm.

    NBC – Owned by GE (a HUGE defense contractor)

    ABC – Owned by Disney

    (I could go on…)

    Lefty pinko radicals, all of ’em!

  5. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 02/22/2010 - 02:41 pm.

    The CPAC event and the Governor’s poor straw vote showing only goes to show the ersatz “Tea Party” folks and the alleged conservatives are expending very virulent unsubstantiated political hot air.

    Yes, there may be a ‘kernel’ of fact or truth in what they say. But, the venomous and liberal bashing bromides that have been expounded thus far serve no useful political purpose than to muddle and make worse the crises, without any constructive solutions or compromises, facing this nation.

    As for Governor Pawlenty’s “veiled” dark horse GOP bid for the 2012 President ticket, he had better get Minnesota in fiscal order and moving forward with that dynamic Republican leadership he espouses.

    It’s no use saying you can be the future conservative with a more modern Republican Party and renewed conservative values if your ideals and leadership don’t work in your home state! Who is going to listen to the Governor or even vote for him if his political philosophies or leadership can’t seem to get off the ground in Minnesota?

    To quote a past political figure; “If you are not part of the solution, [to any issue], then you [must be] are part of the problem.” That is the main crux of our American and MN politics today. This nation needs dynamic creative leadership not political correctness or useless political bromides.

    “If you want to leave your footprints on the sands of time, be sure you’re wearing [your ‘Red Wings’] work shoes.”
    — Italian Proverb

    Governor Pawlenty, it’s time to put on your work shoes and get to work before the political winds of time blow your footprints into oblivion!

  6. Submitted by jim hughes on 02/22/2010 - 03:08 pm.

    Just run Glenn Beck, then, and get it over with. The Republican party has long since outsourced ‘platform development’ to Fox. Republican office holders already keep one eye – and both ears – tuned to Fox, to be sure they don’t cast a vote that might be seen as a compromise. SO why not remove this pointless, old-fashioned distinction between government and media?

  7. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 02/22/2010 - 04:18 pm.

    Francis F (#5). You are so correct, but the problem may be that the national media still think Pawlenty is a modest, likable fellow who claims that he is leaving Minnesota better off than he found it. And without raising taxes yet!!

    We need for the Real Tim to become better known.

  8. Submitted by Herbert Davis on 02/23/2010 - 05:44 am.

    Could be that if you start out a child of the lower class and take advantage of a society that provides free public education K-12, almost free higher education, tax supported roads, parks and libraries. If when you and yours have accumulated a nice sized pot from government service or employment and a have a nice pension as a legislator or a judge ….AND….then become anti-tax and anti-government, well…HYPOCRISY DOES NOT SELL in the Tea Party.

    A career as a lobbyist would be the logical next step!

  9. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 02/24/2010 - 09:08 am.

    Herb (#9) Have you checked out tuition costs at Minnesota’s higher ed institutions lately?

    Each year, as Pawlenty cuts cuts cuts state money for their operations, the schools have no choice but to raise tuition, making the student’s portion of the cost larger each year. Many have to borrow much more than before Pawlenty or drop out.

    On top of this, predatory credit card companies target students, who sometimes use them to pay tuition while they await financial aid money or other help. These poor souls end up thousands of dollars in debt to corporate vultures who charge them as much as 30 percent in interest.

    Right wing practices hurt people. Pawlenty hurts people big time.

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