If you’re a conservative in America, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, DC is the event you circle on your calendar with big giant red arrows pointing at it. CPAC is three days of lectures, seminars, speeches, and meet-and-greets with the top conservative thinkers in America, many of whom are or were Washington politicians or interest group leaders. For me, this is my first CPAC that I am attending live, and the first one that I am reporting from.
The first speech I sat in on was from former Pennsylvania Senator and potential 2012 Presidential Candidate Rick Santorum. Santorum was once considered a rising star in the Republican Party before being beaten for re-election in the Democratic wave of 2006, losing by 18 points to current Senator Bob Casey. In his address, Santorum primarily discussed the failings of President Obama’s foreign policy, as well as his definition of social conservatism. During his time as senator, Santorum was noted for being a stalwart on social affairs, a position that ultimately led to his undoing in the swing state of Pennsylvania. Santorum largely criticized Obama for beating around the bush on foreign affairs, unlike President Reagan, who would “call evil evil” as Santorum put it. He also took shots at the evils of Sharia Law and calls for Jihad in Western society, which President Obama doesn’t acknowledge as much as he should.
He also discussed what American ideals are, and why big government is so incompatible with American values, which is the belief that our rights come from God, not the government. This is an important thing to remember because the liberal philosophy is that government can grant rights to people. This is false, government can only recognize rights, because if it could grant rights, it could also regulate and ration them, a very dangerous notion for any nation. Government must be limited if we are to get back on the road to prosperity, and many of the actions Washington undertook, including a 99-week unemployment benefits package, which Santorum described as anti-productive and anti-American. His speech was indeed good, and it was refreshing to hear him talk less about his divisive social issues, especially when his negative statements towards gays cost him re-election, and more about fiscal issues, which was what made him a rising star in the first place.
The best speech was Senator Rand Paul’s speech, which can only be described as the Tea Party platform encapsulated. Rand Paul has quickly become the face of the movement, and it was on display in front of the jubilant crowds at the convention. Sticking to his roots as a libertarian politician, no doubt due to the influence of his father, Rep. Ron Paul, the godfather of modern libertarianism, he called for a drastic reduction in entitlement and defense spending, as well as a return to individual liberty. Each time he mentioned cutting spending, calling anyone who defends pork-barrel spending on the military as a “big-government conservative”, the crowd cheered. I was surprised by this positive response because it was just last year that his father spoke of the same thing and was met with a negative response. It is clear that there is a change in attitude towards the defense budget among conservatives, a very welcome, rational change that recognizes our need to cut spending across all departments and all spending projects. Senator Paul’s words were backed up by the fact that he is currently fighting to cut nearly $500 billion in spending in the Senate, despite the fact that such “extreme” cuts will not go far in a Democratic Senate. While he is still new to Washington, his platform that he put on display today at CPAC is a welcome change from the old guard of the GOP, the representatives that would defend pointless military spending as long as it was spent in their districts. Being a senator from Kentucky also provides him with wiggle room to experiment with being a libertarian-minded policy maker, since Kentucky is a very red state. If his actions are every bit as good as his rhetoric, he’ll be a senator for a very long time.
The most polarizing moment of the day was when the Defender of the Constitution award was given to Donald Rumsfeld, a decision that angered many in the audience. Hearing the loud boos and jeers from the crowd puzzled me a bit, but I soon learned that there are many in the conservative movement that are still hostile towards the Bush administration, and it came through with the eruption of anger at Rumsfeld. It was further emphasized when Dick Cheney made a surprise appearance to present the award, leading one man to shout “War Criminal!” at the former VP. Personally I don’t think Rumsfeld was a good choice for the award, not because he was a bad politician, but because there are many other people that deserved that award more. Rumsfeld’s acceptance speech called for a smart decrease in defense spending, which for him amounted to $10 billion, barely anything in relation to the actual defense budget. He discussed how we must all defend the constitution and gave Cheney credit for being the “best vice president in United States history”, a very interesting title because not that many people remember vice presidents anyway. Rumsfeld’s appearance definitely opened up old wounds with Republicans, and a reminder of one of the low points for conservatives in recent memory, and whether or not it was wise to give him such a prestigious honor is debatable, and there was half a convention hall of people that would question that decision.