While the first day was devoted to the old regime of the Republican Party, notably Donald Rumsfeld’s award and Dick Cheney’s speech, today at CPAC was all about prospective presidential candidates making their first speeches of the 2012 election cycle. Today’s speakers were all potential candidates for the Republican nomination next November. Some spoke well, adding to their credentials for why the base should support them for the presidency, while others fell flat.
The first speech of the morning was by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a man whose presidential ambitions are about as subtle as Darth Vader in a Clone Trooper reunion banquet. Romney’s speech was essentially a stump speech, preaching about how important conservative politics are to American society, especially cutting spending and reducing the size of government. He also mentioned his personal history, including his father who served as governor of Michigan, similar to John McCain’s references to his time as a Vietnam POW in his 2008 RNC speech.
You are probably expecting me to heap praise and admiration for the last Republican governor of the state I once lived in (after all, this is The Boston Conservative), but I would be betraying my fiscally conservative principles if I praised a man whose health care “reform” became the model for Obamacare. Romney’s tenure as governor was characterized by social liberalism and massive spending increases in Massachusetts. Not only that, RomneyCare (as Mass’ health care “reform” is named) has added $100 million to the state’s deficit since its implementation. This is in opposition to his original promise of erasing the $400 million budget gap with the passage with this bill, which has now escalated into the fifth-largest debt per capita in the nation and a state budget that is half-health care spending. Romney may talk a great game, but in the end, he has a record that he must account for, and his record is far from being conservative, as any Bay Stater can tell you.
A far better performer on the big stage was former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty’s speech was similar to Romney’s, but unlike Romney, he has a record of cutting spending as governor of Minnesota, a traditionally left-leaning state. Many audience members that I talked to after the speech commented that Pawlenty, for better or worse, sounded like a “policy wonk”, which is a good thing if you are running for President. Pawlenty’s speech emphasized the need to cut spending and pass a constitutional amendment demanding a balanced budget. As governor, Pawlenty cut spending by nearly $1.2 billion, by his own admission; all while cutting taxes by $800 million. The speech was punctuated with over five standing ovations from the 3,000 audience members, especially in his pledge to be aggressive towards “bullies” like China and Russia in international affairs, something that Obama has not done, especially towards Russia and the must talked about “Reset” button. With the backdrop of the Egyptian revolution, being a good negotiator and partner in democracy is one of the most important components of being a President. Pawlenty was the first speaker of the conference that mentioned international affairs in depth, while many of the preceding speakers only gave it a passing glance if any mention at all. Like Romney, Pawlenty hasn’t announced his candidacy yet, but given the fact that he is spending a good deal of time in Iowa and New Hampshire, an announcement isn’t a question of “if” but “when”.
Getting outside the governor’s mansion, South Dakota Senator John Thune also made his name known to his hopeful supporters with his plan for action as a member of the newly empowered Republican Senate delegation. For my readers who have never heard of John Thune, I can’t blame you. Thune’s main attraction is that he’s the cleanest candidate in the potential field, but he also doesn’t have any major legislative achievements either. So far, his big achievements have been that he is only the third Republican in a century to be re-elected to the Senate unopposed, and that he grabbed the seat from the then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, no small trick as people in Nevada can tell you. Focusing mostly on the actions of his colleagues in the Senate, as well as the House, Thune’s speech did not receive the same approval that Governor Pawlenty earned, but his emphasis on congressional ethics and etiquette, especially with regard to transparency was a welcome addition to the day’s speaker list.
The other presidential candidate that spoke, and the man with the most loyal following at CPAC, was Ron Paul. Like he has done at nearly every speaking engagement that he has attended, the conference room filled to capacity, and several overflow rooms were scattered throughout the site. In fact, the main room filled to capacity two hours before he came on, as his supporters (myself included), jockeyed for a prime seat close to the front. Including the audience in the overflow rooms, it is estimated that close to 5,000 people watched him speak. In typical Ron Paul fashion, the speech was about the dangers of the Federal Reserve and how to be a strong country without being interventionist. Emphasizing the need to cut spending and restore individual liberty, Paul outlined a proposal to cut all federal taxes to 10% in exchange for being completely free of government programs and interference in our lives. When he asked how many people would support such a proposal, the entire audience stood up and cheered.
The speech was also rhetorically different from his normal method, without a doubt an attempt by him to win supporters from outside the libertarian tent. Unlike last year’s speech which was met with disapproval by many rank-and-file Republicans, the atmosphere in the ballroom was electric, and his proposals to cut military spending, particularly in countries like Germany and Japan, as well as crediting the House for temporarily stopping the Patriot Act, were met with general cheering (the Patriot Act was reauthorized the next day). His speech wasn’t the strongest of the day, but that is largely because the opening acts of Pawlenty, Thune, and Romney are very tough to compete with, but Paul effectively got his message out to a broader audience in an attempt to boost his support. It might be easier for him to win people over to his cause this time because many of his platforms, particularly auditing the Federal Reserve and slashing the military budget, are now mainstream Republican/Tea Party agenda items. His bill to audit the Fed currently has 300 co-sponsors, but when it will come up for a vote is anybody’s guess. As head of the Monetary Policy Subcommitee, he has a considerable amount of leverage in that regard, leverage that he will no doubt use in the coming months.
More candidates will be introduced on Saturday, including Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, as well as the results of the straw poll, which will have more significance this year than last year, since we are approaching the time that most candidates begin to declare their candidacy. Every candidate today put forward a solid opening speech to the base, but there were signs of who did better, and who might have the easier time appealing to conservatives come primary time.Who will win the poll is anybody’s guess, but doing well at this point is usually a good indicator of who the frontrunners will be when primary season rolls around, so it is worthy of note.