Conservatives are trying to overcome their biggest challenge: themselves.
As the Conservative Political Action Conference wrapped up its annual gathering here on Saturday, conservatives were determined to conquer their persistent divides and work together to help Republicans mount a credible push for the White House next year.
After two presidential elections won by Democrats, recent CPAC meetings have often been more about airing grievances and wallowing in the legacy of Ronald Reagan than preparing activists for power. But CPAC leaders worked to keep the focus this year on the future and a new, more diverse generation of GOP leaders.
“We need to go out and communicate a modern message to voters who weren’t alive when Reagan was president,” said American Conservative Union board member John Eddy.
Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, 43, added: “a conservative candidate who ignores moderates is as misguided as a moderate candidate who ignores conservatives.”
But talking about unifying Republicans is easier than actually doing it.
Just a few miles up the Potomac River from the CPAC gathering, Republicans on Capitol Hill were feeling their way through another meltdown over the weekend. Speaker John Boehner failed to corral conservatives behind a bill to keep the Department of Homeland Security running, forcing him to come up with a last minute alternative Friday night and renewing questions about his ability to maintain control of the House.
But that didn’t seem to matter much at CPAC, which was the usual riot of late night parties, Democrat-baiting, tough talk on foreign policy and off color jokes about Bill Clinton.
“The kids are in charge!” declared the American Conservative Union’s energetic new leader Matt Schlapp at a four-day conference packed with “boot camps” and tutorials to train activists in the political ground game.
There was even talk of emulating President Barack Obama. Conservatives once mocked Obama for being a community organizer but, chastened by his two electoral wins, there’s now a certain admiration for his brand of precinct-by-precinct politics and record of uniting Democrats.
Charlie Kirk, leader of Turning Point USA, a national conservative student movement, said Democrats, unlike Republicans, were able to unite behind common principles without “infighting.”
“We can learn from the left in that regard,” he said.
In the event’s straw poll, which provides a snapshot of conservative opinion but is a poor predictor of presidents, Sen. Rand Paul pulled off his third win in a row in a fresh show of his organizational muscle and appeal to younger voters. He beat out Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker by four points. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush rounded out the top five.
It was difficult to make firm conclusions about the poll because it disproportionately attracts students and young voters who may not reflect the eventual Republican electorate.
But though CPAC organizers were pre-occupied with building the infrastructure of the next election, most excitement surrounded the candidates, who seemed much more professional than some of their predecessors in 2012.
The big questions going into CPAC were: Can Bush win over conservative critics? Is Walker ready for prime time? And can another candidate break into the conversation?
Bush braved the lion’s den and boos from conservatives who abhor his positions on Common Core education standards and immigration reform. His 8% total in the straw poll was not a surprise. But the consensus after his performance in a Q&A session on Friday indicated he might have helped himself a little.
“He was impressive. He came across and shared his conservatism really well,” said Glenn McCall, a Republican National Committeeman from South Carolina who had previously been skeptical about Bush’s appeal to grass roots conservatives.
“I think it is going to play well for him,” McCall said. “People are going to be excited in South Carolina after seeing him (at CPAC).”
Bush stood his ground on his differences with the movement, but offered his most explicit statement yet that he was a true conservative while governing Florida.
But he still has work to do.
Talk show host Laura Ingraham voiced the fears of many CPACers when she complained Bush was so close to Hillary Clinton on surveillance, immigration and education that “they might was well run on the same ticket.”
Walker lived up to his billing as the hot new conservative hope. “Run Scott Run,” the crowd chanted as he reeled off his resume on hammering unions and slashing taxes.
But he again showed a tendency to set off media brushfires a week after being caught up in a tussle over whether Obama and is a Christian and loves his country.
When asked how he would handle ISIS, Walker said that if he can take on 100,000 protestors at home, he could “do the same across the globe” in an answer which seemed to reveal his foreign policy inexperience.
Rubio, who hurt his ties with conservatives by initially backing comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate, got a warm reception and so did Cruz. Paul sought to distance himself from isolationist sentiment among many in his libertarian base by promising a strong defense against the “barbaric cult” of ISIS.
Christie, meanwhile, played into a widespread feeling at CPAC, and foreshadowed an attack line against Bush, when he said that rich donors should not decide the Democratic nomination.
The party’s relatively minor potential contenders, like Carly Fiorina, Rick Santorum, John Bolton, and Rick Perry, also gave speeches which seem more likely to usefully shape the party’s debate rather than drive it to the extreme.
Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, meanwhile, offered a tutorial in how to take down Clinton, who was universally condemned as a disastrous secretary of state who will seek a “third term for Obama.”
“The funny thing about Hillary Clinton, the more people that hear from her the less they like her,” Priebus said. “Hillary never comes out in public these days. If there’s not a private luxury jet and a quarter of a million dollar speaking fee, you can forget about it.”
But Democrats scoffed at the idea that conservatives were now turning to the kind of techniques pioneered by Obama.
“Of course they are trying to run their presidential campaigns with our message (#WeWonTwice), but their policies don’t match and voters know that. And with 619 days until the election, anyone who hasn’t figured that out already is going to,” said DNC spokeswoman Holly Shulman.