What I Learned at CPAC
The key to revealing what that title promises stood before me as I entered the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, being held just outside Washington, D.C., in National Harbor, Md.
There, I was greeted by a prominent floor-to-ceiling pillar asking, “What Makes America Great?” -- with a high-school civics answer that touched the carpet.
It is no coincidence that the lobby pillar mirrored President Trump’s 2020 campaign slogan, “Keep America Great,” welcoming thousands of attendees to the four-day conference.
Thus, the first and most overarching lesson I learned from attending this year was that the lobby pillar symbolized CPAC’s unabashed branding of Trump’s re-election theme, which was seen on virtually every conference display.
In fact, the marriage of Trump and CPAC was so overwhelming that a GOP strategist attendee told me, “CPAC might as well be the 2020 RNC convention.”
As a longtime Republican and CPAC attendee, my observation of Trump/CPAC love is that it now parallels Reagan/CPAC love, and that is no small achievement. My joke to friends was that CPAC is the only place where white men can wear a red “Make American Great Again” cap with no fear of being mugged.
Since CPAC is 1000 percent behind Trump, there appears to be no room for any primary opposition. But that does not stop Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican recently re-elected to his second term and whose “blue” state hosts CPAC, from continuing to discuss a primary challenge.
A GOP activist whispered to me that Hogan is “the name that shall not be mentioned,” observing that the governor is “nowhere to be found at CPAC, either on stage or roaming the halls.” The activist correctly assumed Hogan would not be well received and thought that that was an unfortunate political reality.
But there was a brief Trump primary discussion on Thursday afternoon during a main stage panel titled “The Politics of Realignment and Its Impact on 2020.” The panel was moderated by Matt Schlapp, the chairman of American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC. Schlapp told the packed ballroom that he believes a primary opponent would be “good for” Trump.
While I agree with the premise of Schlapp’s surprising remark (assuming he meant that an authentic Trump primary challenge would be useful as a general election warm-up), Schlapp’s CPAC/Trump 2020 rah-rah décor directly contrasted with his stage message.
But immediately, Schlapp asked panel participant Tom Bevan, co-founder and president of RealClearPolitics, to respond. Bevan said that any primary opposition is a “kamikaze mission against Trump, who has 85, 90, 95 percent support among the base.”
(And that base was sitting in the audience, giving their MAGA hats a workout.)
Trump, the undisputed King of CPAC (which should officially be renamed T-PAC) is speaking on Saturday, and I doubt that he will mention Schlapp’s suggestion about the benefits of primary opposition.
My second lesson from the conference was hearing the word most overused by the stage speakers – socialism – and realizing that is now Trump’s real general election opponent.
Thank you, Democrats!
Speaker after speaker – and, in a video presentation, Ronald Reagan himself -- denounced the evils of socialism. Yes, CPAC attendees definitely got the message that socialism does not work and never has. It will destroy our nation, our economy, our way of life, our future. Democrats in 2020 are pushing socialism, but Trump is our defender!
That is the president’s re-election theme, and it’s a good one. But still, the evils of socialism must be explained because many voters born after the Cold War confuse the word with liberalism – or, even worse, social media! -- so the theme is not a slam dunk.
There is no doubt that Trump faces a tough re-election, but 99.9 percent of CPAC attendees firmly believe that he will win.
So, my two takeaways from CPAC: Trump rules supreme over a unified base that strongly believes in “Keeping America Great,” and he will lead a successful fight against socialism. Both are such highly charged emotional themes that if Democrats choose to downplay either, they do so at their own peril.