CPAC 2010, Day 1

I flew into DC yesterday for what is becoming an annual event for me, and one of the highlights of my entire year, the Conservative Political Action Conference. We are about to close the curtain on the first day of three and it has not disappointed.

The energy and excitement level here is stratospheric. In retrospect, I think it all started a year ago at CPAC 2009 when registration broke all records up to that point and we all collectively realized that in spite of what the liberal pundits and chattering classes were pronouncing, conservatism was not dead. As American Conservative Union President Dave Keene announced this morning, pre-registration shattered previous attendance levels yet again, with over 10,000 expected to show up at the Marriott Parkway before all is said and done.

Months after CPAC 2010 concludes, I am confident there will be a handful of memories that will stand out from the pack. One of those will be Marco Rubio’s keynote speech. The beautiful part of this is that a year ago, virtually no one in the room had ever heard of Marco Rubio. Now, he garners rock star status and deservedly so. Marco Rubio started out about 9 months ago in the race for the Florida Senate seat being vacated by Mel Martinez, 30 points behind the incumbent Florida governor, Charlie Crist. Crist had heavyweight Washington endorsements, a pile of money in his campaign warchest, charisma and a fake tan. Rubio has charisma, but is missing all three of the other assets. Today, in no small part due to the assistance of the stalwart Senator Jim DeMint and DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund, Rubio has not only erased the deficit with Crist, but is ahead of him by 10 points. Marco Rubio gave an eloquent, poignant speech in which he praised in tones of blazing clarity the exceptionalism that has always characterized the United States of America. With heartfelt passion, he recounted the bumps in life that his working-class parents faced as Cuban immigrants and how ultimately, his own station in life was testimony not to a guaranteed equality of government outcomes, but to the equality of opportunity that is found under the constitutional system envisioned by the Founding Fathers. The standout phrase: “Throughout history, Americans have chosen individual liberty, rather than the false security of government.”

Marco Rubio only spoke for about 20 minutes, but it was a beautiful thing to see. At only 39, with virtually no experience on the national stage, he is a natural. In the space of just a few minutes, Rubio addressed the subjects of taxes, the sanctity of life, the bloated budgets of recent years and national defense. Yet it didn’t feel as though he was merely reeling off a checklist. He projected thoughtfulness and insight. Rubio’s conservatism, as verbally displayed today, is bold and unashamed, while still emanating warmth and goodwill. We need 100 Marco Rubios in the United States Senate, but after today, I’m confident there will be several thousand of us who will work hard to see at least one sent there!

Jim DeMint introduced Rubio and then, once Rubio finished, came back on to say a few more words. He got big laughs when he told the crowd, “I didn’t come to Washington to make friends and so far, I haven’t been disappointed.” DeMint is going toe-to-toe with John Cornyn and the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee with DeMint’s establishment of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has backed candidates whom the NRSCC would not only rather not see supported, but who also challenge NRSCC favorites like Charlie Crist and California’s Carly Fiorina.

Dick Armey spoke next. As he began, I sent out the following Tweet: “Dick Armey comes on stage waving a cowboy hat. I wonder how many here know that Armey has a Ph.D in economics?” Not that there is anything wrong with that! I make my living working for a university and I greatly enjoy economics, but it is interesting to see the two paired with Texas conservative populism. Armey is a very folksy speaker and provided a change of pace from what had come before and what was to follow.

While Armey was talking, I saw a report on Twitter from Fox News’ Greta van Susteren that Dick Cheney was making a surprise appearance at CPAC to introduce his daughter, Liz. I excitedly Tweeted this news, which proved to be something of a scoop and was rapidly picked up and Retweeted by a number of others. Well, Liz walked out shortly with no Dad in tow. Hmmm…I have enjoyed Liz for several months now; she has become something of a staple on the Sunday morning talk shows, including ABC’s “This Week” and Fox News Sunday, with Chris Wallace. Watch this woman. She has learned well at her father’s feet; she is an intellectual force to be reckoned with and articulates her views as forcefully as anyone in political circles today. She came out swinging with tough rhetoric about the weakness that the Obama team has shown in the face of both economic and foreign policy challenges. As she closed her speech, she pivoted into an expression of gratitude for the example and training her father had provided for her over a period of many years, then revealed, “Today, I brought him with me.” The entire convention throng leapt to its feet with a deafening roar as Dick Cheney walked out onto the stage. He received at least a full minute of sustained applause before seats were finally taken again…And I heaved a sigh of relief that I had not accidentally misinformed my Twitter followers with news that turned out to be sensational, but inaccurate! The former Vice President did not linger long, but did inform the crowd, with that crooked Cheney grin we all know so well, “I think 2010 is going to be a wonderful year for conservatives…and I think Barack Obama is a one-term President.”

We were paid a visit by another surprise guest. Greta proved on Twitter that she is just as reliable a reporter as she seems to be on Fox News because I picked this tip up from her too: Scott Brown, in an unbilled appearance, was there to introduce one of his major benefactors, Governor Mitt Romney. Brown gave us his own mini-speech, introducing himself as “the REPUBLICAN Senator from Massachusetts” and throwing in references to his truck for good measure. Brown also quipped that he had been known to go on in a fulsome manner and that he was “glad my daughters aren’t standing behind me right now.”

Scott Brown brought Romney on, with expressions of gratitude for Romney’s friendship and help. He told us that “When anything needs fixing, especially economically, I look to Governor Mitt Romney for the answer”, all but endorsing Romney as his preferred 2012 candidate. In a quid pro quo that surprised no one, Romney told the crowd, “I’m going to take Scott Brown wherever I can, as often as possible.” As “National Review’s” Kathryn Lopez Tweeted, Romney wasn’t kidding. This is a link that does not hurt him anywhere he goes and will only assist him with his 2012 Presidential aspirations.

It was interesting to observe the disconnect between some of what was said on Twitter about Mitt Romney’s speech and the way it was actually received on the floor in the hall. I felt that Romney’s speech was animated and far more engaging and even informative than last year’s. He will certainly be formidable in 2012, regardless of who else decides they are in the race. Romney even dared to confront Obamacare, which was both necessary and welcome, since Romney will need to convince GOP primary voters that we aren’t likely to see a reintroduction of the milder plan he passed while governing Massachusetts. He also offered glowing praise to private sector initiatives and unleashed a deadly zinger against the Democrats in the process: “Isn’t it fitting that so many of those who have such contempt for the private sector will soon find themselves back in it?” Others, though, seemed to feel that Romney’s style was ineffective and marked more by throwback references than anything else. My guess, though, is that Romney will win the straw poll here again (which, of course, means no more than any straw poll ever does, which isn’t a whole lot to start with) and will retain a hardcore following and a lot of establishment backing going into 2012.

I went to a couple of other workshops this afternoon. Some general observations:

I attended the session on social media with David All, Megan Barth, Michelle Oddis and others, moderated by Melissa Clouthier. All of these people, especially David All and Melissa Clouthier (better known to those of us on Twitter as @MelissaTweets) are stars at the Americans for Prosperity events (like Right Online and Defending the Dream) and are beloved by us right-wing Twitterverse residents. As big and important, however, as CPAC is, there were only about 150 people in the room, with a good number of empty seats. I wish wholeheartedly that was not the case, but I must be truthful. Too many old-school conservatives (and I thank God for every one of them) still don’t realize the essentiality of becoming conversant with Facebook, Twitter and other similar networking outlets.

I went back across to the Marriott Ballroom for John Boehner’s speech. He was enthusiastically received, but most of what he said was fairly standard. Cleta Mitchell, from the American Conservative Union, introduced Boehner as “the next Speaker of the House.”

Wayne LaPierre, the Executive VP of the National Rifle Association, closed out the day. LaPierre is in a class all by himself when it comes to speaking ability. He used the same effective tactic this year that he did last CPAC, interspersing his speech every few minutes with pertinent video clips or media flashes that either underscored his points or highlighted his debating prowess on “Meet the Press” and “Face the Nation.” It really works well, especially since most CPAC speakers come to the podium and deliver their remarks, relying solely on their own rhetoric and star power. (It works for about 75% of them. Then there are the others.) I don’t think he reads his speeches from a teleprompter either, which constitutes a departure from the standard routine. Again, some do this well and some just don’t.

Tonight, after coming back to the room for a while, I went back up the hill to the Marriott for an evening event with the libertarian group, Campaign for Liberty, that is making tremendous strides in membership and organization across the country. Ron Paul, Judge Andrew Napolitano (who frequently fills in for Glenn Beck on TV) and one of my favorite authors, Thomas E. Woods, Jr., were the featured guests. I am not with these libertarians on everything, but their passion for freedom and transparency in government is something to behold. 

On the way through the Marriott to the Thurgood Marshall Ballroom, I stumbled into a Freedom First meet and greet, featuring Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. After leaving, I saw Stephen Baldwin, Alec’s little brother, in the Marriott pub, being asked for a photo by some fans. Ron Paul was also out and about by then and fielding some requests for autographs and pictures. Hard to walk away from it all and go back to the hotel room, but another big day awaits tomorrow.

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