Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The GOP postmortem (CPAC edition)

THE POLITICAL surgeons who’ve just finished the latest in the serial autopsies of the post-November Republican Party gathered in conference over the weekend. This doctors’ convention offered a variety of prescriptions for the patient’s resurrection, but it’s that absence of unity in the prescription that tells the story they’d rather forget: The patient may have been under self-sedation for too long.

The Conservative Political Action Conference is about as close as a pilgrimage as the Republican Party has today. Historically, it’s the party’s best and certainly most media-visible opportunity to gather like-minded loyalists and thought leaders, distill the grand party themes and general objectives into something like strategy — and invest some hopeful soul with belle-of-the-ball status, as the putative frontrunner for the next presidential nomination.

This year’s model was no exception, only it was. The 2013 CPAC, held in National Harbor, Md., generally stuck to that organizational script. But the plurality of opinions about how to repair the GOP’s damage after the 2012 debacle illustrated — at one event, in one place — precisely the depth of divisions about what it means, in March 2013, to be a conservative Republican in the first place.

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The purest evidence of that was in the result of the Washington Times-CPAC Straw Poll, an informal beauty contest with no real weight beyond the convention itself. The poll’s results convey limited bragging rights on whoever wins it, but that’s no guarantee of future results. Hell, Mitt Romney won the poll in 2012 and look what good it did him.

The participants at CPAC voted anyway. The conservatives they selected, from win to place to show to also-ran, show why it’s a good thing no one takes the CPAC Straw Poll that seriously besides the people who voted in it.

The CPAC 2013 poll winner was Rand Paul, the firebrand libertarian ophthalmologist Kentucky senator and son of Rep. Ron Paul (who scored dead last in the 2012 CPAC poll). Paul won the poll with 25 percent of the vote. Paul was followed by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the mainstream hopeful  who finished a close second, with 23 percent.

From there the numbers fall off for the others still standing in the derby. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who pitched the evangelicals in the 2012 primary season, garnered 8 percent of the straw-poll, followed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — the one Republican with any claim to the moderate, pragmatic, electable center, and a tenuous claim at that — trailed with 7 percent, followed by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, king of the budget wonks, with 6 percent. Bringing up the rear in dead last: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and political personality Sarah Palin®, with 3 percent each.

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CONTRAST IS GOOD, of course, and there was plenty of that distinguishing Paul and Rubio.

“Obviously Rubio is dynamic and what people would consider a more traditional political speaker,” Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, told The Washington Times. “That kind of fired-up the crowd, more with the style, though he had substance too — but he had more of a persona of a political guy. Where, I think, Rand Paul was more staid, more deliberate on what he had to say, and his appeal was the message. So you had this very good contrast, literally back-to-back, where you got to see the two directions of the Republican Party.”

But it’s that last phrase — “the two directions of the Republican Party” — that’s exactly the problem. Contrasts on matters of style, or even shades of degrees of substance? That’s one thing.

But when a Republican true believer like Christie, who wasn’t even invited to CPAC this year, places fourth despite being the most relatively palatable Republican elected official in the country right now; when moderates like Jon Huntsman and Rob Portman are similarly dissed ... you have to wonder how much traction the GOP’s rebooting efforts will have inside the party, much less how it’ll resonate with the rest of the country.

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Consider the poll’s perception of Ryan, only months ago the GOP nominee for vice president. Six percent? Quite a comedown from before the election, when Ryan and Romney could do no wrong (at least not out loud).

Or consider that Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who some in the party believe could pull the sword from the stone in 2016, wasn’t even in the poll — and not by accident. NPR reported that Bush requested that his name not be included, no doubt acutely aware of the straw poll’s track record at predicting nominees.

“Since the straw poll was first held in 1976, only two of its winners have gone on to win the presidency — Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Only one other poll winner, Mitt Romney, even went on to win the Republican nomination,” NPR reported.

Given that W-L record, Bush figured, it makes sense to ward off the kiss of death every which way you can.

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NOT THAT Bush didn’t show up at National Harbor. In a speech that dealt more than a glancing blow to the party’s existential orthodoxy, Bush said “the face of the Republican Party needs to be the face of every American, and we need to be the party of inclusion and acceptance.”

With a cri de Coeur statement like that, and coming in the midst of GOP concerns over its own ideological purity and an increasingly diverse national future, Bush may not have placed that well in the poll to start with.

Rand Paul was the big CPAC winner. Placing highest in the straw poll was the latest win for the senator; his recent 13-hour filibuster against the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director — with the senator ably channeling Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — got him operational kudos from conservatives and liberals alike for not phoning it in, for having the stones to stand in the well of the Senate and make his case. And agree with it or not, his Tuesday speech on immigration reform may be an early indicator of Paul's willingness to get thematically panoramic, to stake out positions on major issues before his would-be competitors even decide to be competitors.

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But if Paul gets in, it won’t be a coronation. At a February speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, Rand sought to ally his foreign policy principles with those of Ronald Reagan, including his assessment of Reagan as pragmatist. “I see the world as it is. I am a realist, not a neoconservative, nor an isolationist.

Weekly Standard editor William Kristol took issue with that on Fox News Sunday. “If Rand Paul wants to run to the left of the Obama administration, he’s free to try that in the Republican primary, and maybe there is more support for that than I think, but I’m pretty doubtful that there really is.”

Expect more of this sniping if Paul — or any of the other finalists in the CPAC straw poll decide to run in 2016. Expect more of the intra-partisan shots and snark that have characterized the first phases of the GOP’s post-election staggering in the desert. What you have to expect from a party grappling with its own identity.

In a piece in Daily Kos, a writer named Hunter ably distilled the dilemma: too many flavors.“Rand Paul is the libertarian choice, and has strong support in among the Tea Party. Marco Rubio is the more conventional, party-groomed candidate. Rick Santorum has strong support here from the fundamentalists and outright theocrats (and, apparently, the racists), a smaller but persistently loud minority.”

Hunter interviewed one CPAC event official as saying that the downward drift in the numbers of those who voted in the poll in recent years suggests that the conservative movement “hasn't quite come to consensus yet.” Ya think?

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“I see the world as it is,” Rand Paul said, and as nice as that sounds, it’s no more true for him than it is for anyone else. Like anyone else, Rand Paul sees his own world, his own America, as fashioned and lived through his eyes. His short-term victory is the fact that he’s found fellow believers in his vision among the faithful at CPAC.

Whether the world according to Rand is exportable beyond those faithful remains to be seen. Kristol doesn’t like his chances.

If the track record of the CPAC straw poll is any guide, neither does history.

Image credits: CPAC logo: © 2013 American Conservative Union. Rubio: CPAC 2012, via C-SPAN. Christie: tk. Paul: Neil W. McCabe for Human Events.

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