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.