CPAC

The GOP's Big Idea: Elect More Republicans!

At CPAC, Republican rising stars chased an agenda, and electoral victory.

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Photo credit: Foter / CC BY

Judging by the speeches at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the Republican party's rising stars have decided that they should talk more about what principles their party stands for, and what policy ideas they favor, instead of just reiterating what they oppose.

"We've got to start talking about what we're for. And not what we're against," said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. "We can either make the choice to keep our head down and not rock the boat, to not stand for anything or we can stand for principle," proclaimed Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas). "We have to explain where we want to take the country, and how we want to get there," said Rep. Paul Ryan (Wisc.). Executed well, the payoff could be huge. "We are literally on the verge, if we make the right decisions, of a new American century," said Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.).

Yet even as the parade of GOP bright lights affirmed support for a positive vision backed by productive policy ideas, most seemed to struggle to define that vision, or talk clearly about what those ideas should be. The GOP has decided that it should probably stand for something—yet aside from electing more Republicans, it's still not sure what, exactly, that is.

The struggle to articulate a principled vision was most apparent in Gov. Chris Christie's speech. Christie currently serves as the head of the Republican Governor's Association, and his address was built around a contrast between productive Republican governors and ineffective Washington talkers. For him, action was the key. "Governors are about getting things done. Governors are about making government work," he said. "Governors have stood up and done things, not just talked about them," he reiterated a few minutes later.

But what would it mean for government to work well? And what should guide administrators as they seek to improve programs and systems? Christie briefly alluded to a handful of discrete initiatives in other states, as well as to a few of his own public sector reforms. But there was no obvious guiding principle to connect them aside from party affiliation. Above all, Christie was focused on Republican electoral victory. "We don't get to govern if we don't win," he said. Otherwise, his speech was a case for action for its own sake.

Like Christie, Sen. Ted Cruz also portrayed himself as an outsider fighting timid forces in Washington while looking for a way to win. In his telling, too many gutless Beltway insiders followed the "Washington way" of compromise and calculated triangulation. That way, he said, was a surefire path toward policy failure—and electoral defeat. "You want to lose elections," he said, "stand for nothing." Cruz provided a 10 point list to help explain what he stood for: repealing Obamacare, repealing Dodd-Frank, stopping presidential lawlessness, abolishing the Internal Revenue Service, and ending corruption all made the cut. Cruz nodded to expansions of school choice and energy production, as well as defending the Constitution, but mostly it was a rundown of specific things he opposed. 

Strangely, Cruz also seemed to suggest that part of the party's problem was its insufficient criticism of President Obama's agenda. After highlighting the electoral failures of Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney, he asked: "The Obama agenda has been horrible for people, yet how many Republicans said that?" Well, Romney, for one, whose speeches often accused President Obama of having "crushed the middle class." If there's anything that virtually the entire GOP has been clear about for the last five years, it's that they don't support President Obama's plans.

Sen. Marco Rubio's speech struck a less defiant note, focusing more on America's place in the world at what he vaguely described as "a critical moment in our country's history." Rubio offered a paean to America's global greatness and an argument for the benefits of American strength and military power, set against warnings of looming threats from abroad. But Rubio's vague call for "an American foreign policy deeply rooted in our values and principles" still made for an awfully murky national vision. It describes how Americans might like to think of their country, but not what America's diplomatic and military leaders might actually do.

These speeches did not propose any clear visions for the country so much as promise that some sort of vision was on the way, and that Republicans would figure it all out once elected. That promise of a forthcoming agenda was in part a reaction to widespread disappointment with Mitt Romney's rudderless 2012 presidential campaign. But how much progress has the party really made? Romney himself sounded many of the same notes in his 2012 speech to CPAC, declaring, rather like Christie, that "it's not enough to show how [Obama and Democrats] have failed. We must prove we deserve to lead." Like Cruz, he warned of politicians who promise change but "become creatures of Washington," falling under its spell. The CPAC of 2012 didn't take place at a critical moment for America, as Rubio said, but it was "a defining moment for our generation," one that required an assurance "that American remains the greatest military power on the face of the earth." Admittedly, it took until 2013, the year after he lost the election, for Romney to extol the virtues of capable Republican governors. But he got there eventually.

In his Thursday speech at the convention, Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, managed to sidestep this trap by acknowledging that the party's vision was still forming. Right now, he said, Republicans are engaged in an internal "battle of ideas." It's a battle he welcomes, because it leads to change—and, yes, to victory. "You fight it out. You figure out what works. You come together. Then you win."

Ryan's right about how policy ideas come to be accepted. But the real fight isn't happening at the party's center, amongst its boldfaced names. It's happening at the periphery, amongst activists and agitators, policy wonks and panelists, and those eschewing wonkier economic issues. And while there's no full-fledged vision to be found, there is a hint of an emerging consensus, especially amongst the young, in favor of greater personal liberty on certain issues—gay marriage, marijuana legalization, personal privacy, federal surveillance and spying.

Of the Republican party's rising stars, only one has made a serious attempt to reflect that impulse, at least in spirit, if not always in the particulars: Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.). His CPAC speech opened with a subtle counter to the partisan victory cheers of his fellow headline speakers, asking the audience to briefly imagine a future in which liberty is once again paramount in American politics. "You may think I'm talking about electing Republicans," he said. "I'm not. I'm talking about electing lovers of liberty." In other words, what Republicans need isn't a vision for the party, and ideas to run on. It's a vision for the country—and ideas to make it happen. 

NEXT: EU Countries Threaten Russia with Sanctions, CIA Denies Snooping on Senate Committee, America's Cheeses Under Attack: P.M. Links

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  1. Man, it’s getting to the place where we can describe the current times as a ‘lost decade’ for the GOP, and it feels like we’re dead smack in the middle of it.

    1. I remember when I was a kid in the 90s, thinking about what life would be like today.

      Suffice to say, I’m thoroughly disappointed.

  2. “We’ve got to start talking about what we’re for. And not what we’re against,” said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

    What if I’m against the bumper of the car in front of me?

  3. OK Chris, and when you come out honestly with something other than crony capitalism we’ll be happy to listen.

    1. Don’t forget he came out with price controls on gasoline, because everyone knows that price controls make products more available to everyone.

  4. there is a hint of an emerging consensus, especially amongst the young, in favor of greater personal liberty on certain issues?gay marriage, marijuana legalization, personal privacy, federal surveillance and spying.

    So nothing about Healthcare, Social Security and the Warfare State which libertarians seem to think is a really big deal.

    1. If you don’t know you have cancer, when it becomes too late, then you’ll think it’s a big deal. I guess ignorance is truth.

      1. Can someone who speaks retard please translate?

        1. He said, “Ostrich.”

  5. And here I thought the goal of every politician is to get through an election and win it just by spouting platitudes and clever phrases that allow the listener to impart whatever meaning makes him hopeful and part of the crusade for a brighter tomorrow. Rule one is “don’t get specific.” The only ones who do (and to a fault) are Libertarians and you see how successful that is at voting time.

    1. Ron Paul won 11 elections.

  6. GOP agenda:

    War with Iran
    banning abortion/contraception
    banning gays kissing

    What is not to like?

    1. GOP agenda:

      War with Iran
      banning abortion/contraception
      banning gays kissing

      What is not to like?

      Wow, yeah, those were the reasons they drove us over the fiscal cliff, right?

      1. The GOP brought us to the fiscal cliff, dumbass!

        1. So you agree that spending more is the exact wrong way to go. Which means that you agree that the Dems flooring it and crashing us through the guardrail, and telling us how awesome it is as we fly towards a fiery death is also the wrong way to go.

        2. Right. It was the GOP that gave us SS. It was the GOP that gave us Medicare. It was the GOP that gave us Medicaid. It was the GOP that unified the trust funds and the general fund. It was the GOP that gave us BarryCare.

          No matter how many times you shout, “Part D!” it doesn’t change that fact that the Team Blue pressed the accelerator first and stuck a brick on it.

    2. Credit where it’s due, that’s probably the most intelligent thing shreeek’s ever posted here.

  7. Yeah, Gov. Christie will take a stand: In line at the buffet table!

    1. I’m far more concerned about his thuggish mentality than the ample requirements of his midsection.

  8. “But what would it mean for government to work well?”

    Republicans and libertarians would be out of a job? Agree or disagree about the necessity of garbage collection, but does anyone really want it being done by people who believe garbage collection to be the root of all evil?

    1. Garbage collection can be done by the private market, so why would I think it is the “root of all evil”?

      1. Makes about as much sense as saying government (per se) is the root of all evil.

        Assuming some rudimentary form of civilization exists at all, both government and garbage collection will always exist. So wouldn’t it be best to have them run by people who believe in the cause, rather than people whose ideological fixation is undermining the effort altogether?

        1. So, only people who “believe” in government are fit to run it? Like Mussolini or Stalin right?

        2. My garbage collection is private. Tell me why I need someone to have a “cause” to collect it. I don’t care what they believe as long as they do the job.

        3. Makes about as much sense as saying government (per se) is the root of all evil.

          Which, of course, has never been said by anyone, including anarchists (who believe that the government monopoly on force is illegitimate; the force being the “root of all evil”, not the actor employing it).

          Rape and theft will always exist as well, but I don’t particularly care if the rapists and thieves are passionate about their career choice.

        4. Tony:

          Assuming some rudimentary form of civilization exists at all, both government and garbage collection will always exist. So wouldn’t it be best to have them run by people who believe in the cause, rather than people whose ideological fixation is undermining the effort altogether?

          And, what is the cause of government?

          Government is a group of people who assume the legitimate use of violence in accomplishing their goals within a geographic area. Is that, itself, a cause?

          Otherwise, I’m not sure what “believing in the cause” is defined as. Is it short for believing that being ruled is great, and we really don’t care about the details?

          If your worry is that people will inadvertently elect anarchists, I think you’ll be OK.

          1. It shouldn’t have to be a cause. Having a government is like step 1 in living in a society anyone could possibly want to live in. Nevertheless, you guys go on questioning whether law, order, peace, and stability are possible without it.

            The average dupe is just fired up about some brown person possibly getting something he doesn’t deserve, of course, and really doesn’t buy in to the anarchist rhetoric when they consider what it means for their medicare scooter.

            1. Funny, I thought the discussion was about the scope of what necessary government action is.

              Do we need government to remove garbage? Certainly not.

              Are there things we benefit from government doing? Of course. That doesn’t mean we need to have every aspect of our lives regulated and controlled by distant bureaucrats and politicians tying to do “good” on our behalf.

            2. Because you personally need someone to tell you what to do and are terrified of brown people that must be how everyone else feels too, right?

            3. Having a government is like step 1 in living in a society anyone could possibly want to live in.

              Very telling. Normal people would be concerned with securing food, shelter, and clothing. Douchebag here’s first priority is making sure someone has a foot on his throat.

            4. It shouldn’t have to be a cause. Having a government is like step 1 in living in a society anyone could possibly want to live in. Nevertheless, you guys go on questioning whether law, order, peace, and stability are possible without it.

              Never do you ever question whether law, order, peace and stability are best achieved by granting a monopoly of the production of those things to a political institution of aggression and violence. Injustice is not a necessary component of justice.

        5. Isn’t the cause that they profit from removing our garbage enough?

    2. You can do better than that, Tony. Hardly worth a response.

    3. My garbage service is private. And pretty cheap, too. The garbagemen do it in exchange for sweet, sweet money, not the public good or altruism or whatever you think motivates people besides self-interest.

  9. Not that Suderman’s wrong, but the criticism is hilariously ironic coming from a magazine whose editorial staff went about 85% for “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” in 2008.

    1. I thought they picked Obama.

  10. Here’s an agenda for them, free of charge:

    1. Cut spending.
    2. Don’t raise (any) taxes. Ever.
    3. Stop spying on innocent people.
    4. Let individual states legalize whatever the heck they want.
    5. Appoint judges who will respect the right to private property.
    6. Support the 2nd Amendment, and the 9th.

    1. 6. Support the constitution and its first ten amendments.

  11. What can’t be couched in either positive or negative formulation? To be for something is to be against its complement.

    Some attempts to formulate libertarianism in the positive fall flat, though. Like Leonard Read’s statement that we’re for anything that’s peaceful. Simply ain’t so. We don’t want to make it illegal, and we’re against criminal interference with it, but that doesn’t mean we’re for it.

    Wow, 2nd time I’ve criticized Read here in the past few days.

  12. Yay… Let’s give the party that launched the Iraq and Afghan Wars, of abortion prohibitionists, sanctimonious twiddlers on gay marriage and GOP church ladies one more chance. They won’t fuck it up like they did the last time.

    Next up… Accusations of Boooooshism from “libertarians” who want to give the party of John McCain and Michele Bachmann one more go. You sure are a clever bunch.

    1. I find it hard to understand Socialists. It’s like there are hundreds of blue houses in town, but they’re not happy until they paint the only red house in town, blue.

      There are dozens of Socialist countries in the world. And a few Communist, if that’s really your end goal. Why not save yourselves a lot of grief and move into an already blue house?

      Which country best represents Socialism done right?

  13. Large political entities (currently two- for those of you born on Mars) package a product that meets the aspirations of the given largest demography for that political and social philosophy. The GOP can only stand for what the largest number of its voting demographic will support. I’m oversimplifying but I maintain that the GOP is not the problem. The problem lies within its voting base and at the risk of offending religious Libertarians the problem with the GOP is the religious tenacity of the cabal of people who vote Republican. Theoretically and for the sake of illustration remove a bevy of biblical rules and the GOP swings Libertarian in 3 seconds. The GOP would probably disappear INTO Libertarianism which would become an unstoppable political brand likely never seen on the planet.

    1. I see your point and agree to an extent.

      But you’re never going to get anywhere if ask them to abandon their beliefs. You MAY make some progress asking them not legislate those beliefs onto others.

      Concentrate on the similarities? small government? fiscal sanity? but they want to BAN everything they don’t agree with? just like Liberals.

      Can they be convinced to NOT ban them, but just accept that ALL people should be allowed to decide their own lives? I dunno. If you can convince the Muslims, you’ll have a chance with Christians.

      1. All valid points. When I look at the nature of the socialist liberal and the religious conservative the conjoined philosophy of the two that will probably forever eclipse Libertarianism is that individuals cannot be trusted with liberty because it leads to activities that directly (or can be misconstrued to) negatively-impact the larger social order.

        And when the larger social order incorporates elements of the butt-hurt, uptight, square, controlling, fearful, or those generally-apprehensive-of-anything liberty is on par with terrorism in terms of its felonious potential.

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  15. And now the GOP seems to think they can just repeat the same fired up speech and we’ll just walk right to the voting booths for them. McConnell and his idiotic display holding the rifle high?as if he isn’t a miserable traitor. Well you know what GOP? It doesn’t matter whether you control the Congress with the Oval Office or not. You had it all with the Bush era for years. You don’t act with anything less than treason whether you are the majority or not. Then the only guy that stands up and demands debt accountability, Ted Cruz, you attack. That will really get me to vote for you in 2016.

    You want to win the next election? Check your treason at the door. Put in a Patriot. And if by some miracle you do win the Congress in 2014 then the first and immediate thing you do is impeach that Marxist traitor sitting in our Oval Office. You do that I might think you have our country at interest after all. You don’t negotiate on amnesty or raising the debt ceiling. Do that and you might get my vote.

    Don’t do that and don’t expect my vote. Because what you are doing right now, GOP, will collapse our country anyway as my fiction and history predicts. So it really doesn’t matter who is in charge. So stop talking and engaging in idiotic feel good shows like McConnell just did.

    Show us.

    Charles Hurst. Author of THE SECOND FALL. An offbeat story of Armageddon. And creator of THE RUNNINGWOLF EZINE blog.

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