The event, which starts today, has never seemed like more of a caricature of itself. But we can still learn from it
Take a look at the speakers roster for the Conservative Political Action Conference, which kicks off in Washington today, and it’s easy to conclude that the annual gathering of conservative activists has devolved into a circus show. Not only are Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell, two of the most popular Republican governors in the country, not invited, but Donald Trump and Sarah Palin are being given two of the longest blocs of time at the podium. It’s almost enough to make it feel like CPAC ’13 was planned by some mischievous Democrat.
The event, as it always does, will attract thousands of conservative activists, opinion-shapers and politicians and will receive substantial media coverage. It’s hard to say exactly how well the conference, which serves as an umbrella for a funky area of right-leaning groups and causes, reflects the conservative movement, but the events of the next few days could provide some useful clues about where conservatism is heading in Barack Obama’s second term and the role that some prominent and ambitious Republicans will play in it.
To that end, here are three things to be watching for at CPAC:
1. The mainstreaming of Rand Paul: The Paul name has been a divisive one at Obama-era CPAC gatherings, with rabid supporters of Ron Paul invading the hall to cheer on their man, jeer his Republican enemies, and in 2010 and 2011 delivering straw poll victories to him. When those straw poll wins were announced, the boos from the rest of the attendees were loud and lusty. Ron Paul’s CPAC appearances perfectly captured the nature and limits of his political appeal. His libertarian message, non-interventionist views and devotion to the gold standard attracted a sizable, committed following, but many of the true-believers weren’t actually part of the Republican Party. Meanwhile, that same message – and the missionary zeal of Paul’s backers – alienated the rest of the party, guaranteeing that he’d always be a lightning rod in the party and placing a permanent ceiling on his growth.
It’s a different story for Rand Paul, though, who inherited the family’s political operation when his father retired from the House after last year’s election. He has ambitions not just to run for president but to seriously compete for the Republican nomination, in a way his father never did. And as he showed with his filibuster last week, he has a knack for drawing attention to himself in a way that upholds his basic libertarian worldview without alienating wide swaths of the Republican Party. As I wrote at the time, the most notable aspect of Rand’s filibuster was how many mainstream Republicans ended up joining him on the floor – a show of support his father never dreamed of.
CPAC could provide further evidence that Rand Paul is making inroads into the conservative mainstream (and that the conservative mainstream is simultaneously moving toward Paul-ism). His will be one of the most closely watched speeches, and if it ends with the Paul-ites united with rank-and-file conservatives in raucous cheers, it will be further proof that the younger Paul is a far more serious force within the GOP than his father ever was – and that his national prospects are real.
2. The immigration question: If there’s one issue where there’s been real movement on the right since the election, it’s immigration. And the point-man has been Marco Rubio, the Florida senator and potential 2016 White House candidates. Rubio is at work on legislation that would create some sort of path to citizenship for the undocumented, and has been making the rounds selling the idea to previously hostile leaders on the right. He’s had some success so far, winning praise from Rush Limbaugh and even forcing Jeb Bush to abandon his watered-down plan for a path to legal status and to reembrace the citizenship concept. Still, immigration remains a highly sensitive issue on the right, where strong nativist sentiments are still prevalent. Rubio will be speaking at CPAC, and it will be interesting to see whether he includes his immigration reform ideas in his message – and, if he does, how the crowd reacts. And if he doesn’t mention immigration and instead sticks with the standard right-wing red meat, that will also be telling, suggesting that Rubio has concluded he has a lot more work to do behind the scenes before it’s safe to play up a path to citizenship plan in front of a conservative audience.
3. The uninviteds: The snubs of Christie and McDonnell have attracted considerable attention. The New Jersey governor is supposedly unwanted by organizers because of his vocal praise for President Obama at the height of Sandy last fall – which came just days before the election. McDonnell apparently wasn’t included because of the transportation bill he recently signed, which includes some tax increases. Some have interpreted these snubs as evidence that both men have fallen from favor with conservative leaders and are slipping behind in the all-important pre-2016 “invisible primary.” But there’s reason to believe that it wasn’t a groundswell of opposition that accounted for each man’s non-invite, but rather a decision from a relatively small group of conference organizers. I’ve suggested that Christie (and probably McDonnell too) is still in very good standing with the right and would receive a warm welcome from the crowd if he showed up at CPAC.
Let’s see if any prominent speakers decide to mention the two snubbed governors – and let’s see how the crowd reacts if they do.
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki More Steve Kornacki.
More Related Stories
- Obama heckled at national security speech
- Cuomo: "Shame on us" if New York City elects Weiner
- Coburn calls questions about tornado aid "typical Washington B.S."
- Conspiracy theorists clash over London attack
- Voting is not a right
- Destroying the planet for record profits
- Ahead of Obama's speech, U.S. acknowledges four American drone killings
- Pic of the day: Barack Obama at prom
- Anti-Islam backlash in London after machete attack
- Must-see morning clip: Bill O'Reilly visits "The Daily Show"
- Obama’s drone speech will probably be maddening
- Boehner: "Inconceivable" Obama didn't know about IRS targeting
- Obama to announce new effort to close Guantanamo Bay
- House supporters of KXL received $56m from fossil fuel industry
- Judge tells lesbian couple to separate -- or lose kids
- Obama to address drones, Guantánamo
- If Alex Pareene were a cable news executive...
- Portland's senseless war on fluoride
- Graphic video reportedly shows possible London machete attack suspect
- What economists get wrong about the jobs crisis
- Ted Cruz: "I don't trust the Republicans"
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11
Alex Pareene surveys the burgeoning and bloated world of political news and opinion and explains the day's most essential story in Opening Shot, posted by 8:30 a.m. each weekday. Bookmark this page; follow @pareene on Twitter.