Republican disarray on full display at CPAC

By Walter Shapiro

In politics, nothing is as fascinating as a party in disarray, uncertain about its future and bitterly divided about whether and how to change. That’s why for the next few years, Republican agonies offer an infinitely more compelling narrative than the arrogance of the puffed-up Obama Democrats.

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which ended its annual meeting Saturday, represented a high-profile opportunity for top Republicans to ask painful what-next questions -- or avoid them.

In an era when every politician is a robotic follower of message discipline, CPAC was riotously off-message. The chief reason for the thematic disarray was that most prominent Republicans simply do not agree on the long-term message to offer that will help them win presidential elections.

The CPAC press contingent, which was big enough to cover the O.J. Simpson trial, had collectively decided that CPAC was the kick-off for the 2016 Republican nominating contest. Bulletin: Only 41 months to the next GOP Convention.

What matters at this stage are not the fleeting image boosts for would-be 2016 contenders (though Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and even Scott Walker did quite well), but rather the collective effort to define the party. This is something that needs to be done beyond the short-term maneuvering of GOP congressional leaders. It is not John Boehner’s and Mitch McConnell job to redefine Republicanism.

But the party does need redefinition. This is not just my conclusion from the press box, but also the interpretation offered across the conservative spectrum at CPAC.

Sure, Sarah Palin won the sound bite wars with her shrill call to “furlough the consultants” and send “the architect” back to Texas -- a thinly veiled swipe at Karl Rove.

But the party’s problems are much deeper than its failure to match Barack Obama’s 2012 voter-targeting effort. Put simply, Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections – and four of those contests weren’t close.

No one in politics has had as good a month as Rand Paul, who vaulted out of the shadow of his father, libertarian stalwart Ron Paul, with his 13-hour Senate filibuster attacking Obama’s drone policy. At CPAC he capitalized on his newfound fame and ill-concealed 2016 ambitions by castigating the party establishment: “The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered.”

Newt Gingrich, who has become the aging Cassandra of the Republican Party offering dire warnings that are never fully accepted, was similarly scathing about the GOP’s direction. The former House speaker called upon Republicans to reject “the establishment’s anti-ideas approach.”

On fiscal matters, Gingrich said, “We must disenthrall ourselves from the accountant green eyeshade approach to thinking about budgets.”

It is tempting to offer a diagnosis that the Republicans are on the wrong side of every 21st century demographic and cultural trend – antagonizing Latino voters with their opposition to immigration reform; alienating younger voters with hard-line positions on social issues like gay marriage; and remaining an almost entirely all-white party as ethnic diversity transforms America. In his CPAC speech, Jeb Bush warned his fellow Republicans, “All too often we’re associated with being anti-everything – anti-immigration, anti-women, anti-gay.”

But that wasn’t what Rand Paul was referring to when he called the party “moss-covered.” And it was certainly not Gingrich’s message when he called the GOP “anti-ideas” and single-mindedly obsessed with cutting budgets.

A telling reflection of the Republican Party’s ideas gap is its Ronald Reagan problem.

At CPAC, virtually every orator felt compelled to reverently invoke the Gipper at least twice – and sometimes three times if the audience’s attention was drifting. It is worth pointing out that Reagan, for all his accomplishments, was last on a ballot in the Orwellian year of 1984.

Yes, when Reagan swept 49 states to win a second term, Paul Ryan wasn’t old enough to drive. Something is wrong when a party’s hero comes from an era when a smart phone was one that had a mechanical answering machine attached.

This is a common malady for a party mired in an inescapable losing streak. When the Democrats were on the ropes in the 1970s and 80s, party orators still felt compelled to invoke Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy.

Nothing underscored the rectitude of both Gingrich’s and Paul’s critiques of GOP than the speeches delivered by its 2012 standard bearers.

Mitt Romney, making his first major public appearance since the Election Day unpleasantness, delivered a speech of such soul-numbing banality that I half expected him to eat up time by reciting the words to “America the Beautiful.”

There were no driving ideas and no revealing personal anecdotes. Just bland Mitt-isms like, “I utterly reject pessimism. We may not have carried on November 7th, but we haven’t lost the country we love. And we have not lost our way.” It is telling that Romney refuses to take any rhetorical risks even now that the active phase of his political career is over.

Ryan, Romney’s erstwhile running mate, offered a reprise of his latest plan to balance the budget in 10 years by slashing (forgive me, “reforming”) Medicare and Social Security. “Our debt is a threat to our country,” Ryan said. “We have to tackle this problem before it tackles us.”

This was the kind of green-eyeshade politics Gingrich has decried. Ryan’s remarks proved that while you can take a man out of Capitol Hill and put him on a national ticket, you can’t take Capitol Hill out of man. Unlike Marco Rubio, a far more compelling speaker, Ryan comes across more as the eternal House Budget Committee chairman than a visionary of the GOP’s future.

Another CPAC headliner was failed 2012 presidential contender Rick Perry, who still has his power base as Texas governor.

Perry offered the most reassuring argument to partisans refusing to believe the party needs to change. Decrying what he called a “media narrative” suggesting conservative arguments have failed, Perry said “That might be true if Republicans had actually nominated conservative candidates in 2008 and 2012.”

There is an element of truth to Perry’s argument, since neither John McCain (who voted against George W. Bush’s 2001 tax cuts) nor Mitt Romney (remember the Massachusetts health-care plan) are traditional conservatives. Perry’s words also reflect the insistence by many in conservative movement who blame weak candidates for their problems and see no need to adjust their views.

The conservative faith that all the Republicans need is a right-from-the-start presidential nominee may be buttressed by the 2014 midterm elections. Up to now, the party that controls the White House almost invariably loses congressional seats in the sixth year of a president’s term. (Recall that the Democrats took over Congress in the sixth year of George W. Bush’s presidency). If the pattern holds in 2014, the Republicans may win undeserved self-confidence from an off-year electorate that is older and whiter than in presidential years.

The CPAC Convention ended Saturday with a (yikes!) 2016 Straw Poll. The results were totally meaningless since CPAC convention attendees are not a cross-section of anything – and, hey, we are nearly three years from the 2016 Iowa caucuses. (But if you must, absolutely must, know who won, it was Rand Paul).

As tempting as it is for the GOP (and, yes, the media) to get prematurely caught up with polls and presidential possibilities, the party needs to find the big ideas to offer the nation as an antidote to Obama-ism. Judging from CPAC 2013, that looks like a long journey. Before the Republicans can elect a president, they first need to solve what George H.W. Bush once awkwardly referred to as “the vision thing.”

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