OXON HILL, Md.—Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell walked on stage holding a rifle.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., got a long ovation for claiming that “every single word” of Obamacare needs to be repealed.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., won sustained laughs when he said today’s tax code is “10 times the size of the Bible and has none of the good news.”
And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie asked when a pro-life Democrat last got to speak at that party’s national convention.
Quips, questions and stagecraft helped kick off the first day of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) just outside Washington. The often carnival-like gathering provides lawmakers a chance to perform in front of thousands of mostly young conservative activists who flock to the nation’s capital expecting to be energized. With men on stilts dressed like Uncle Sam strutting about the hotel’s hallways, lawmakers tried to provide their own colorful entertainment inside the convention’s main ballroom.
With McConnell facing a tough primary reelection fight from a Tea Party challenger, it surprised no one that the Kentucky senator tried to boost his conservative bona fides by bringing a rifle with him to the podium. He began his remarks by saying President Barack Obama is treating the U.S. Constitution “worse than a placemat at Denny’s.”
The mainstream media is a favorite target at CPAC each year. Christie, who returned to the event after not being invited last year due to the lingering flap over his post-Hurricane Sandy photo-ops with Obama, told the crowd “we have to stop letting the media define who we are and what we stand for.”
For this year’s event the national media’s main storyline depicted Republicans in the midst of a “tug of war over the soul” of the party. That’s the way the Associated Press put it, while predicting that the conference would underscore divisions within the party on everything from social issues to foreign policy.
But speakers such as Ryan dismissed this notion that Republicans are embroiled in a massive civil war.
“Look, I’m Irish,” said Ryan after listing the different groups under the GOP’s umbrella, including the Tea Party and libertarians, who sometimes don’t agree on every issue. “That’s my idea of a family reunion. I don’t see this great divide … what I see is a vibrant debate.”
The Wisconsin congressman and former vice presidential candidate said he sees a lot of reasons to be optimistic. He listed the fact Obama’s new budget is dead on arrival in Congress and the “total fiasco” of Obamacare as reasons why “the left is exhausted and our side is energized.”
“The reason they keep talking about income inequality is because they can’t talk about economic growth,” Ryan added. “They have spent five long years in power, and all they have to show for it is a lousy website.”
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., took the stage to celebrate a recent and rare conservative victory in the Senate. On Wednesday, Senate Republicans and seven Democrats rejected a controversial Obama nominee to the Justice Department. The nomination of Debo Adegbile to direct the department’s Civil Rights Division had angered many, including the Fraternal Order of Police, because they believe Adegbile took on and prolonged the case of a convicted cop killer for political reasons. The nomination’s defeat marked the first such failure since Democrats changed the Senate rules to permit a simple majority vote for nomination approval. Toomey told CPAC attendees the vote proved Republicans are not marginalized, even in the Democratic-led Senate.
“It demonstrated that when we stand up and when we fight and we fight on principle we can actually sometimes win even in Washington, D.C.,” Toomey said. “The fact is we need to stand up to a president who thinks the laws of America don’t apply to him.”
While many conservatives are pointing to this November’s midterm elections as a way to regain the Senate and curtail Obama’s ambitions for his final two years in office, this year’s CPAC also provided an early showcase for some of the GOP’s top presidential hopefuls for the 2016 elections.
Christie touted his success as the governor of a Democratic-leaning state, arguing that he is doing things lawmakers in Washington should be doing, including taking on the unions to corral out-of-control pension programs. As the head of the Republican Governors Association, Christie also saluted the success of GOP governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Florida while chiding federal lawmakers for focusing on style over substance.
“What we see in Washington is people who only want to talk,” Christie said. “They can’t stop talking, The most dangerous 10 feet in Washington, D.C., is between anybody who wants to start talking and a camera.”
Not coincidentally, some of Christie’s major rivals for the Republican nomination currently do their lawmaking in Washington.
Ryan, a Republican leader in the House, aimed his arrows at Obama and the Democrats, saying that a majority party “doesn’t burn heretics, it wins converts.” He cited the predicted job losses due to Obamacare and mocked some Democrats’ depiction of that as a “new freedom … the freedom not to work.”
“The left is making a big mistake here,” Ryan continued. “What they are offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul. The American people want more than that. People don’t just want a life of comfort. They want a life of dignity. They want a life of self-determination.”
Cruz blamed the Republican losses in 2008 and 2012 on the fact that “we stood for nothing, and we got walloped.” Then he cited the 2010 Tea Party-backed Republican victory, which he called an “historic tidal wave” of an election.
“You win elections by standing on principles and inspiring people,” Cruz said. “If you want to lose an election, stand for nothing.”
Other possible presidential contenders took their turns at charming the CPAC crowd, including Sen. Marco Rubio. The Republican from Florida emphasized foreign policy more than his potential 2016 rivals. He said Americans cannot ignore the nation’s global importance.
“American must be involved in leading the world, but not in dictating it,” Rubio said. “If you think high taxes and regulations are bad for our economy, so is global instability and the spread of totalitarianism.”
Presidential long shots also tried to jostle their way to the head of the pack through their CPAC rhetoric. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said Obama has assaulted the nation’s religious liberties and tried to redefine the American dream “so that success is defined by government assistance. That’s not an American dream. That’s an American nightmare. The American dream is not about government programs.”
One conservative rising star has yet to make his appearance on the stage, but that did not stop his image from appearing in several prominent places. Supporters of a “draft Ben Carson” movement devised creative ways to get their man noticed, including sponsoring the room keys at the hotel where CPAC is taking place. The face of Carson, a Maryland surgeon, did not just show up on hotel keys. His backers also sponsored a video promoting Carson that runs on repeat on some of the CPAC shuttle busses. Carson, who became an internet sensation after taking apart Obama’s policies in front of the president last year at the annual prayer breakfast, is scheduled to speak on Saturday, CPAC's final day.