Scott Walker's CPAC mistake: How new rules for '16 GOP race just got established

America is arguably the greatest country in world history, Governor? Here's the right GOP answer

Published March 2, 2015 1:30PM (EST)

Scott Walker                                        (Jeffrey Malet,
Scott Walker (Jeffrey Malet,

The Conservative Political Action Conference is mostly a competition in rhetorical excess.*

At this year's conference, as usual, one line that each of the competitors must include in his or her speech is some version of, This is the greatest country in the history of the world. If you don't work this line into your speech, then your invitation was a mistake. There are means of inflection, placement, and adjectival modification to make your delivery of The Line stand out. You can say it like, THE greatest country in the history of the world, with emphasis on the article, or the single greatest country in the world, just to beef up that point about America's singular status. Sometimes the world isn't enough, either -- this thing needs to go extraterrestrial -- and then America becomes the greatest country in the history of the universe. And what if the line needs a pinch of divinity? Never hurts at CPAC. Then we have the greatest country in the history of God's green earth. Throw all of these tweaks together, employ the dramatic pause between each word, and we have the Ultimate CPAC Line: America. Is. The. Single. Greatest. Country. In the history. of God's. Universe. Whoever says that is certain to win CPAC.

Scott Walker made one error at CPAC this week. No, not the comparison between labor protesters and members of the Islamic State. CPAC conservatives loved that. It was in his delivery of The Line: America is arguably the greatest country in the history of the world. "Arguably"? What's there to argue, Professor McRINO?

Walker should be careful never to make this transgression again, at least until he's got the nomination. But he got away with it at CPAC, because he's the conservative stallion of the moment. No other candidate -- even Rand Paul, whose young, libertarian base eats a disproportionate share of the conference's annual crowd, just as they did for his father -- was met as enthusiastically as the thrice-elected Wisconsin governor atop the early polls.

He speaks their language, and he speaks it very LOUDLY. Loudness, speaking a consistent shout, is the approach he's settled on for proving to the judges that he does have more charisma than a ironing board. What is he shouting about? The same old stuff, the feel-good lines. But you get the impress that he means these things, that's he's an impossibly earnest guy. When he says that the Founding Fathers were "superheroes" to him growing up, you can actually believe it. He has an Marvel comic-book view of his role: to protect America from bad guys intent of subversion. There is no difference, to Scott Walker, to the threat posed by Democrats, college professors, unionized workers, the media, Islamic terrorists, Western Europe, Vladimir Putin, Hollywood, China, Iran, or government regulators. They are all all bad guys, they all want America to collapse, and they're all working on realizing this at breakneck speed. Walker doesn't get angry about any of this, because he's accepted it as the way things are. The simplicity -- he and his fans would probably call it "clarity" -- of Scott Walker's thinking is a tremendous benefit to have in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. Your brain does not have to contend with that intrusion of nuance and complication that's the trade-off of living in reality.

If Walker's Manichean outlook represents the furthest rightward pole among potential nominees, then Jeb Bush, of course, represents the "centrist" pole. We cringed a bit typing "Jeb Bush" and "centrist" in the same sentence, because he is not one. His moderation begins and ends with two positions that's he's too associated with at this stage to plausibly turn back on: comprehensive immigration reform and Common Core. Beyond that, he holds all the CPAC-approved, far-right positions. Some of them you can believe: he obviously wants to deregulate every sector of the economy, to the further extent possible. He enjoys adventurous overseas warfaring -- positively puts a glint in his eye. Does he really believe in "traditional marriage," though? Does he get all hot and bothered about strict adherence to constitutional originalism? Does he consider Creeping Sharia, that phantom haunting America's small towns, to be a real thing? Because he's going to have to pretend to for the next calendar year.

Bush and Walker aren't the only potential nominees. There's also Marco Rubio! Maybe Rand Paul or Chris Christie if something weird happens. (Ben Carson will be the nominee.)

But CPAC 2015 established the rules for the race. There is now a well-defined window of acceptable thought, and it stretches from Jeb Bush to Scott Walker. In other words, you get two heterodoxies. Two issues on which you don't occupy the single greatest right-wing position in the history of God's universe. Beyond that, you're out. Don't even bother showing up.


* -- Okay, that's not true: it's mostly an opportunity for hustlers, typically in the form of pretend presidential candidates, to move units of self-branded merchandise.


By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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2016 Elections America Chris Christie Cpac Editor's Picks Gop Jeb Bush Marco Rubio Scott Walker The Right