alien & sedition.
Monday, March 05, 2007
  CPAC: Heart of Darkness

Now that the CPAC attendees have had a chance to unpack (and to advise us on hotels to avoid in DC), we're getting more comprehensive reports on how it all went down.

According to the right-wing Washington Times,
Michael S. Steele and Newt Gingrich were the biggest stars according to activists who attended the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani pulled off CPAC's biggest coup, former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III was the biggest surprise, and Ann Coulter was the biggest loser.
Steele, of course, is a two-time loser (for U.S. Senate and RNC Chair) and isn't running for President, but he was well received at the Conservative Summit and at CPAC, and it seems clear that he's going to be hanging around as a conservative movement star-in-waiting. That kind of status generally comes with an expiration date, since you eventually have to do something to justify the buzz, but Steele's window may be larger than others, since he seems to have become the nation's most prominent black Republican (besides Condi). Considering the alternative, conservatives seem pretty happy to have Steele around - and who can blame them?

Gingrich, continuing his non-campaign campaign, was on his home turf.
"I got more bang for my buck than the other [2008 presidential hopefuls]," a smiling Mr. Gingrich told The Washington Times after he marched from the back of the Regency Ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, amid stirring music nearly drowned out by applause and cheers.
Now, Newt hasn't announced yet. He's been coy, keeping himself in the public eye while criticizing the long campaign season. So I'd like to know exactly what words he used in place of "[2008 presidential hopefuls]".

At any rate, the straw poll - reported in the post below - seems to be surrounded by a pretty sophisticated expectations game. For instance:
Mr. Gingrich was the only top-tier potential contender for the Republican nomination who hadn't formed a presidential exploratory committee or bought any CPAC banquet tables for supporters. Yet in the largest presidential preference straw poll in the conference's history, he placed fourth (14 percent) -- ahead of Arizona Sen. John McCain (12 percent), who rejected an invitation to address the event.

Mr. Giuliani made his decision to accept CPAC's speaking invitation four days before the conference, yet managed to place second (17 percent) in the straw poll behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (21 percent), who had invested heavily in pre-event organization.
I've been praising Romney's legwork for a while now, but how much does "pre-event organization" really have to do with the straw poll results? Do contenders try to pack CPAC the way local pols might pack a Democratic club to win its endorsement? Does the CPAC straw poll really measure the temperature of the conservative movement, or does it mainly just reflect a petty test of the candidates' early organization?

My sense is that there's an element of both, that for instance the Romney vote reflects more organization than enthusiasm. But at the same time, Newt has done plenty of organization himself - just not in the name of a presidential run. He's been building his mailing lists, he's got his 527, and he has spent the last decade cultivating his conservative fan base. I'm guessing that a few banquet tables, give or take, weren't going to make much difference anyway.

Reports on Giuliani have been mixed. The Washington Times article suggests Rudy did well:
"I think Giuliani is doing much better among conservative audiences than anybody could have imagined six months ago," said Michael Toner, a Federal Election Commission member appointed by President Bush.

Following Mr. Giuliani's Friday speech, several previously skeptical conservatives stopped a reporter to express their admiration for how thoughtful Mr. Giuliani appeared and to say they liked the way he conveyed a sense of leadership.
Other reports have indicated that Rudy "fell flat," delivering a long, rambling speech with little red meat, leaving the hall "to significantly softer applause than what he was greeted with at his entrance." An MSNBC article interviews New York Conservative Party chairman Mike Long, who offers a mixed assessment:
Long has known Giuliani for years and knows Giuliani is no conservative. “In his heart, he’s a Democrat,” Long said in 1994 when Giuliani supported Democrat Mario Cuomo in the governor’s race. The Conservative Party provided the margin of victory for Republican George Pataki that year in his upset victory over Cuomo.

Giuliani ran three times for mayor of New York City; not once did he run on the conservative party line; in fact he ran on the liberal party line.

At this past weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington sponsored by the American Conservative Union (ACU), Long said, “There’s a clear separation (between conservatives and Giuliani) on important issues that a president has to embrace to win conservative minds and hearts.”

He added, “In all fairness to the mayor, he’s starting to go through an evolution, so we have a long way to go. We haven’t talked to him about anything yet at this stage of the game; we have not had a sit-down on issues.”
Long, of course, has his own calculations to make. Never a great ally of the mayor, Long nonetheless has an opportunity to thrust his increasingly marginalized party into the spotlight and maybe play a little bit of the kingmaker. Moreover, the only hope for Republicans and Conservatives to avoid a wipeout in New York's state and local elections next year may be having Rudy Giuliani at the top of the ticket. So it's no surprise that Long was making friendly noises about Giuliani at the Conservative Party summit last month. On a larger level, it's indicative of the attitude conservatives seem to be taking toward Rudy: he's not perfect, but he sure is electable.

The WaTimes suggests that Gilmore - who is trying to overcome his obscurity by claiming the "true conservative" mantle - did pretty well for himself:
[W]hen questioned Saturday night after both Mr. Gilmore's and Mr. Gingrich's speeches, more CPAC attendees remembered the former Virginia governor's address and said the Virginian -- a former RNC chairman who headed the Gilmore Commission to assess terrorism threats -- got all the nuances right on foreign policy.
On the other hand, Erick of RedState called Gilmore "a non-starter":
Gilmore proclaimed himself the only conservative, but he did not mention Brownback. He threw lots of punches to claim the mantel for himself and in the process barely got any applause from the crowd.

In fact, Jim Gilmore, in his efforts to go all out at CPAC, might have done himself in. He failed to attract a lot of enthusiasm from the student activists and his largest applause lines were about Ronald Reagan -- not himself.

He also tried mightily to remind people that Virginia, under his watch, suffered an attack on 9/11, just like Rudy. The difference, of course, was that Rudy was in the thick of it and Gilmore was not. And judging by his showing the straw poll, Gilmore did not get any traction with his late effort.
The last paragraph makes me chuckle. Seems that, in the battle to be President of 9/11, proximity counts for a lot.

Finally, on the subject of Coulter, I'll give a little - a little - bit of credit to the right: they have indeed been busy denouncing her. From the WaTimes article:
"No question -- we shouldn't give Coulter a serious platform when she is seriously out of line," said Mrs. Mitchell, an Oklahoma native whose clients include many top Republican candidates. "She is the Howard Stern of so-called conservative commentators, and we should take her off the list in my view."

Former Republican congressional staffer Gil Macklin agreed.

"Every time Ann Coulter opens her mouth, taste takes a holiday," Mr. Macklin said. "No blow is too low for Coulter to throw."
From RedState:
Ann Coulter's remarks at CPAC were crass and bigoted, and she dropped them into her schtick so that she could end with a bang and get some cheap publicity at the expense of everyone at CPAC.
From the New York Times:
Three of the leading Republican presidential candidates on Saturday denounced one of their party’s best-known conservative commentators for using an antigay epithet when discussing a Democratic presidential contender at a gathering of conservatives here.

The remarks by Ann Coulter, an author who regularly speaks at conservative events, were sharply denounced by the candidates, Senator John McCain of Arizona, Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. Their statements came after Democrats, gay rights groups and bloggers raised a storm of protest over the remarks.
We asked for denunciation, we're more or less getting it. Of course, it's hard to give the right too much credit here. For one thing, their pique seems to stem more from the damage Coulter has done to the conservative movement than from the hatefulness of her remarks. For instance, RedState:
Perhaps the worst thing Coulter did with her bigoted tongue, though, was to hand the Democrats yet another free pass, over a weekend when the stories should have gone completely in the other direction. [...]

It's indisputable that it's Coulter's right to say any vile, harebrained thing she can come up with. It's a free country, and she's got a big mouth, after all. Nobody is going to put her in jail for being an idiot. But it's not indisputable that we have to put up with it, and it's especially galling because were it not for her antics, this CPAC would have been an unqualified and unsullied success. If we continue to make tactical mistakes of this kind, the Democrats will win.
Of course, it's fair to complain when the idiocy of one of your own hurts you politically. But the bigger problem is that it's not like they didn't know who Ann Coulter was. For God's sake! This is a woman who has essentially called for the bombing of the New York Times, the assassination of a president, and the murder of her political enemies. CPAC's organizers - and attendees, including the presidential candidates - knew what Ann Coulter was all about when she was booked. She's a nasty, vicious bigot - and she was one of the big draws of the conference. As the Houston Chronicle's "Blue Bayou" blog puts it:
Here's what's I find funny: conservative friends will tell me that nobody really looks at Coulter as a serious person. With her calls for assassinations of public officials, general name-calling, and highly casual relationship with anything resembling facts, she's the court jester, a source of entertainment whom nobody really thinks of as one of the grown-ups.

But there she is, a featured speaker at this event... and there are the attendees, clapping for her.

Conservatives who like to get worked up about what they call "Bush derangement syndrome" (which is just an odd term for "disagreeing with Bush's failed policies"), or rude bloggers hired by Democratic campaigns, or anonymous comments on liberal blogs, should be asked to hold their thoughts until they can explain Coulter's presence in anything resembling serious - or even just adult - conservative circles.
News reports described the crowd's reaction to Coulter's "faggot" remark as a brief moment of stunned silence, followed by laughter and applause. I think that pretty well helps us calibrate how the bulk of conservative activists feel about this kind of bigotry: they know at some level that it's repulsive - enough to give them pause - but ultimately, they either agree with it, or they don't want to be caught disagreeing with it. A moment of silence, followed by laughter and applause. And scrambling denunciations later, when they see how much damage their center-stage bigotry has done to them. So they're not exactly the Klan, but it's still pretty ugly.

And out of this muck we're meant to get a clearer picture of the Republican presidential field. John McCain did not attend, so he looks a little less muddy - if also less viable. Rudy seems to be running on "electability" juice, while Romney is powered by organization. Gingrich, it seems, is biding his time, hoping to jump in to fill the conservative void at the heart of the GOP field. But he may find that conservatives, unwilling to tolerate such a void for so long, have sutured themselves around a Romney or a Rudy, imperfect as either one may be, in order to keep that heart beating.

Tomorrow I'll take a look at some of the other CPAC goings-on - those related less to presidential horse racing, and more to policy, strategy, and communication.

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