The three-day Conservative Political Action Conference
ended Saturday afternoon with a meaningless presidential straw poll (if you must know, libertarian gadfly Ron Paul won for the second year in a row). But what CPAC really illustrated (and the bizarro straw poll results underscored) is that the late-starting 2012 GOP race remains so wide open that Bob Dole at age 87 might have a plausible chance for a comeback.
Even though both Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee were too busy with their Fox News slots and paid speaking engagements to appear at this premier celebration of all things conservative, 2008 GOP runner-up Mitt Romney failed to emerge as even a paper-tiger front-runner. In fairness, CPAC has never been Romney's natural constituency. The biggest stir he ever caused at one of these things was when he used this forum to announce that he was suspending his 2008 presidential bid (after edging John McCain in a CPAC straw poll.)
Romney, the buttoned-down former Massachusetts governor, still feigning amnesia about his role in championing a statewide health-care plan eerily similar to Barack Obama's, is far too much a traditional business conservative to fit in among the bright yellow NRA tote bags and the hand-lettered posters (hat tip: Ayn Rand) asking, "Who Is John Galt?"
Romney's 2011 CPAC speech, delivered Friday morning in a strong confident tone to the more than 3,000 conservatives crammed into a Washington hotel ballroom (posted capacity: 3,152), was devoid of surprises unless a Republican attacking Obama qualifies as unexpected. Most of it was GOP boilerplate: "The right answer is not to believe in European solutions. The right answer is to believe in America – to believe in free enterprise, capitalism, limited government, federalism." But if Romney's play-it-safe rhetoric never soared, he displayed a relentless determination that may be his strongest selling point on the road to the next year's Republican National Convention in Tampa.
By far, the most important speech at CPAC was delivered by two-term Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana at Friday night's banquet. It was an eloquently crafted, intellectually compelling call to arms against the red-ink forces of the national debt. Daniels, who was George W. Bush's budget director, proposed dramatically revamping Social Security and Medicare as he called for "an affectionate thank you to the major social welfare programs of the last century."
What was most striking about Daniels' speech, which inspired careful listening rather than pep-rally applause, was that it treated his CPAC audience as adults rather than as just another constituency group demanding pandering. Whether it was dismissing the easy-answer attacks on earmarks ("in the cause of national solvency, they are a trifle") or suggesting that most voters do not appreciate the sharp-edged rhetoric of the Republican right ("it would help if they liked us, just a bit"), Daniels' speech was an exercise in speaking truth to conservatives who have the power to derail a presidential candidacy.
One speech is not going to propel Daniels to the front ranks of GOP contenders, or even convince him to run, despite conservative columnist George Will's introduction of the Harley-riding governor as "the thinking man's Marlon Brando." In fact, despite Daniels' self-deprecating claim that his invitation to speak at CPAC prompted the internal question "Who canceled?", he has resisted attending in the past. Just last year, in Washington for the National Governor's Association that was taking place at the same time, Daniels explained his reluctance
to speak at CPAC: "I don't do that sort of thing. I stay in my lane."
The strong and youthful (half of the straw-poll voters were under 26) passions flowing through CPAC deprived the presidential ballot
of even a glimmer of predictive validity. The Republicans are not likely to nominate Ron Paul in 2012 for the same reasons he never won a primary in 2008 –- the GOP mainstream is not going to embrace a purist who rails against the military budget with the same intensity that he attacks the Federal Reserve.
With Paul winning 30 percent of the straw-poll vote, Romney could derive a glimmer of satisfaction from his second-place showing with 23 percent. No other candidate got more than 6 percent (the number attained by both Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who insists he is not running, and little-known former Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico). Making the entire over-hyped exercise even more absurd, the voting ended Friday afternoon before Daniels, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas even got the chance to speak.
What CPAC also demonstrated is that many oft-discussed GOP presidential possibilities have yet to find their voices. Barbour, who can beguile the press
with his natural lobbyist's charm, delivered a clunky Saturday morning address that was about as predictable as conservative paeans to Ronald Reagan. Snarky attacks on the "liberal media elite" sound credible when they come from such good-old-boy outsiders as Perry, but Barbour's entire Washington career as a political strategist and high-priced lobbyist was built around collegiality. Despite his role as an architect of 2010 GOP breakthroughs as the head of the Republican Governors Association, Barbour was guilty of the biggest sin by a second-tier figure in presidential politics: he was boring.
Pawlenty, who seems a certainty to run (as does Romney), displayed a troubling instinct toward empty-calorie rhetoric: "We must restore America's greatness by restoring common sense." In a head-spinning bit of political illogic, Pawlenty fervently opposed raising the national debt ceiling, a statutory move required in the next few months to continue the government's ability to borrow. Pawlenty's policy remedy: "We should pass a constitutional amendment to balance the budget." A fine conservative nostrum perhaps, but, as Pawlenty undoubtedly knows, such a balanced-budget amendment would require years to be ratified by the requisite 38 state legislatures.
Pawlenty does offer voters an emotional autobiographical narrative, built around the death of his mother when he was 16 years old and how his father then lost his job. "I saw in the mirror," he says, "the face of a very uncertain future." But even this poignant and moving story merely served as a run-up to a sentiment too banal even for a greeting card. "One of the most important things we should remember," Pawlenty said portentously, "is the motto of this country: 'In God We Trust.'"
Making sense of the speeches and their effects on the presidential race is simpler if you put the candidates into two categories – potential 2012 Republican nominees, and those flirting with a presidential run for reasons of vanity rather than victory. In addition to Pawlenty, Romney, Daniels and Barbour, the serious contenders appear to be Newt Gingrich (whose Thursday speech was rambling and filled with the former House speaker's trademark Big Ideas), John Thune (the two-term South Dakota senator who seemed over-matched by the vast hotel ballroom), and Perry (the Texas governor exuded a pitch-perfect George W. Bush imitation).
The GOP straw poll included a ballot for the "Conservative Celebrities Poll." That's really the category for faux-presidential possibilities like shrill cable-news Rep. Michele Bachmann
, Donald Trump
(who may discover that presidential politics is not a reality show), Atlanta talk-show host and businessman Herman Cain and Ron Paul.
In this late-starting year when no one can confidently predict Sarah Palin's and Mike Huckabee's intentions, it is still early enough that no glitch is fatal. Even though the opening-gun Iowa caucuses are less than a year away, the plot of the 2012 Republican race is developing at a languid pace that only Marcel Proust could love. Other than the obvious boost of credibility to Daniels, the over-hyped Conservative Political Action Conference decided little. Even the mistakes along the way (mostly Pawlenty's and Barbour's speeches) were small glitches that will soon be forgotten once the GOP nomination contest is blessed with some actual declared candidates.
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