Reflections on CPAC 2015

For those who don’t know, the Conservative Political Action Conference (or CPAC for short) is the annual gathering of conservative activists hosted by the American Conservative Union (ACU). Attended by over a hundred organizations, it is a coveted speaking platform for any conservative, mostly Republican, politician. And this year’s CPAC was an important one.

With less than a year to go before the start of the 2016 Republican Party primaries, any major candidate interested in running for president was there; some of the faces attending the conference included Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, Rand Paul, Donald Trump and Jeb Bush, just to name some. Traveling with the Fordham University College Republicans, I had the opportunity to attend the conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

The main attractions of the conference were the speeches and a new format of live interviews introduced this year. The individuals widely seen as main contenders for the 2016 Republican nomination took part in these. While there was much agreement between the speakers, such as the necessity for the United States to use military force to defeat ISIS, there was also some disagreement on issues such as immigration and the legalization of marijuana.

The first big name speaker was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. No one has faced tougher challenges over the past year than Gov. Christie. After riding high following an overwhelming re-election victory in 2013, the governor found himself faced with the Bridgegate scandal and the rise of the Jeb Bush fundraising machine. Compared to last year’s CPAC, Christie drew a pretty unimpressive crowd. And instead of giving a speech, he opted to be interviewed by conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham. When asked if he could compete with Jeb Bush’s fundraising abilities, he responded that he would “run a hard –fighting campaign where I’ll fight for the taxpayers of this country and I’d take my chances on me, I’ve done pretty well so far.”

While both Christie and Bush are seen as the “establishment” candidates, Jeb Bush has made inroads while Christie has started to lag behind. Christie even made direct attacks on Gov. Bush, describing him as the candidate of the elite, and reached out to the conservative base by highlighting his credentials on abortion, his opposition to Common Core and his confrontations with state labor unions. He also acknowledged his notoriously short temper; saying, “sometimes people need to be told to sit down and shut up.”

Next on the stage was Ted Cruz. The junior senator from Texas launched a strong appeal to create a big-tent Republican Party: “We need all three legs of the proverbial Republican stool. Not one leg, not two, but the way we get to 51 percent is we bring together conservatives and libertarians and evangelicals and women and young people and Hispanics and Reagan Democrats.” He also took time out of his speech to criticize the Republican congressional leadership for funding the Department of Homeland Security, and allowing the president to carry out his executive order on immigration. Many of his comments met with mixed reactions from the notoriously libertarian and young CPAC crowd, especially his comments on social issues such as traditional marriage.

The last big name speaker on the first day of CPAC was Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who has recently been ahead in the polls for the Republican presidential nod. Going into CPAC, I was interested to see what Gov. Walker had to say, but found his speech to be mostly empty rhetoric and a little awkward. At one point, Walker claimed that he would be well suited to take on ISIS after dealing with labor unions in Wisconsin, opining that “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.” In a question-and-answer following his speech, he dodged on questions regarding Net Neutrality and raising the minimum wage. The majority of his speech was an overview of his conservative credentials on things like tax cuts, gun rights and pro-life legislation. Overall, it was very light on the specifics of what a Walker presidency would look like.

Marco Rubio, known for his reform-minded attitude, provided more specifics for the type of policy he would support should he become the next president. The main theme of his speech was keeping the United States “an exceptional nation;” Senator Rubio drew on much of his family’s experience escaping from Cuba as evidence for America’s exceptionalism. In his speech and follow-up interview with Sean Hannity, Rubio supported policies such as cutting the corporate tax rate, creating a stronger military and opposition to Common Core. Also brought up was his change of heart on immigration reform; Rubio had earlier spearheaded an immigration reform bill that passed the Senate with bipartisan support but not put to a vote in the House of Representatives. The bill provided a pathway to citizenship for many illegal immigrants already in the country, and was criticized by many conservatives for not bolstering border security enough. Rubio was able to properly deal with the concerns Hannity raised about the bill by stating his support for tougher border security. While he realized that the Senate bill was unpopular among conservatives, Rubio vowed to fight for more stringent security measures at the border. Compared to many other speeches at CPAC, Marco Rubio’s provided policy initiatives that could move the GOP forward to victory in 2016.

The most popular speaker at CPAC was Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. With a natural appeal to the younger, libertarian CPAC crowd, Senator Paul easily swept the crowd in the Potomac Ballroom off their feet. With his declaration that Americans’ phone records are none of the governments “damn business,” and his call to defend liberty against an ever-encroaching government, the crowd was absolutely electrified. With feverish chants of “President Paul,” and “I stand with Rand” signs bobbing up and down, it comes as no surprise that Senator Paul won the straw poll. Paul also defended his non-interventionist foreign policy, arguing that ISIS partially arose because of the decision to arm the rebels in Syria.

The speaker with the most to prove coming into CPAC was undoubtedly former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, as his stances on immigration reform and Common Core have sparked the ire of many conservatives. But of all the events at CPAC, Mr. Bush’s event seemed to be the largest, with standing room only by the time everyone was done coming into the Potomac Ballroom. Taking questions from Sean Hannity, Governor Bush, in my view, presented an excellent case for conservative immigration reform. He defended a strong border security position, and also took a pragmatic stance on the eleven million illegal immigrants who are already in the country. Bush supports a pathway to citizenship for those undocumented aliens already here, correctly observing that it would be impossible to deport all of them. Trying to reach out to the conservative base, Gov. Bush denounced the president’s immigration executive order, and called it a constitutional overreach. Bush also defended his pro-Common Core position, but used softer rhetoric, denouncing the Department of Education and placing greater emphasis on the states. He also laid out specifics on defeating ISIS, such as creating a buffer zone to train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State, and forming a multinational coalition to confront the group. On economics, he advocated positions similar to Rubio, such as reducing the corporate tax rate.

My overall thoughts on CPAC 2015 were relatively positive. I heard many speakers who proposed ideas and policies that were new and innovative. Politicians like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush seem like they want to address the main issue of the Republican Party, which is an absence of appeal among key demographics such as the young, Hispanics and other racial minorities, and even middle class families. If the Republicans wish see one of their own in the White House in 2016, they should look to adopt a reform minded agenda put forth by men like Rubio and Bush.