NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) began its last day Saturday with an overwhelming call for conservatives to stick to their principles.
There is “too much bipartisanship” where both sides of the aisle are mortgaging our future away, said Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA and emcee for Saturday morning’s lineup of speakers. Those speakers included the likes of co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots Jenny Beth Martin, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.), former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), and former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
(See videos of all CPAC speakers on the American Conservative Union’s YouTube channel.)
Where last year’s CPAC convened prior to the presidential election, this week’s speeches were delivered on the heels of the GOP’s loss in favor of a second term for President Obama. Speakers gave their passionate opinions of how the Republican Party can win the election in 2016.
The “mainstream media’s” idea of rebranding the Republican Party to better cater to minorities was out of the question for some.
Martin chided conservatives for the lack of support for Tea Party candidates, naming Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
“Is this the country you want?” she asked the crowd while comparing the country and Washington, D.C., to the world found in The Hunger Games novel and movie (a nation of Panem that is divided between 12 districts and ruled by a totalitarian Capitol).
“Our vision is distinctly different from today’s reality,” said Martin. She called on the crowd to refuse politicians lining their friends’ pockets on K Street and to “fight boldly on principle.”
“Patriots, stand with us to fight for freedom … life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness … like Tea Party Patriots do around this country every day … together we will have their back.”
Introduced as a person with the confidence to call out members of the Republican Party for being RINOs (“Republican in Name Only”), King carried on that message.
“There are some people who want to rebrand the Republican Party, but they will not succeed in rebranding us conservatives,” he said. Instead, he drew hard lines on “life and marriage and the rule of law.”
While some have asserted that Mitt Romney lost the election because of the party’s stance on social issues, like an immigration policy built on self-deportation, King said he wasn’t “buying it.”
However, an outspoken conservative force, Ann Coulter, spoke later in the evening and warned the crowd of falling for this “canard.”
“If Republicans don’t focus on what is really causing problems, they’re going to fall for the canard that the problem with the Republican Party is its conservative principles,” said Coulter. “Au contraire: Conservatism is about the only thing Republicans have going for them … conservatism is our winning feature.”
Coulter said a scapegoating of a “fake Republican establishment” is allowing the “real GOP establishment” to “plot and scheme undetected” on immigration policy.
“What public policy will harm average Americans, drive up unemployment, change America permanently in negative ways, and on the other hand, is supported by businessmen who will never vote for a Republican anyway?” she asked the crowd. Amnesty for “illegal aliens,” she responded.
Half of elected Republicans support it and as far as she could tell, most conservative talk radio and TV hosts support it, she said.
“You want the Republican establishment, that’s the Republican establishment. … If amnesty goes through, America becomes California and no Republican will ever win another national election,” she said.
Blaine Richardson, a retired Navy captain and candidate for Congress in Maine’s second district, agreed with King. Richardson, sporting a Tea Party Patriot T-shirt, said that he went to the movement’s first rally and has been a participant ever since.
Where King asked pro-reformers within the GOP to join conservatives in “restoring the pillars of American exceptionalism,” Richardson wants to answer that call and sees conservatives winning the votes as a vital part of maintaining the “very essence of human freedom” in America.
“I don’t think it’s about bipartisanship, it’s about values,” Richardson said of conservatism. “I don’t care what flavor of Republican you are.” The Constitution was written in “plain English” and “delineates God-given rights,” he said.
“Conservatives don’t spend much time telling you what to do … and that’s what the Tea Party is all about,” he said.
But social issues have the conservative crowd divided, despite the strong call from CPAC speakers to stick to their guns on all conservative principles.
“Whatever floats your boat is fine with me, but don’t try to and make us [conservatives] look like the odd man out,” Richardson said of same-sex marriage. “I’m not going to judge, it’s just abnormal. Pick another word.”
Losing the White House even renewed interest in third-party avenues among some participants.
Michael Dormer, a CPAC attendee from Indiana, doesn’t “see a third party emerging any time soon because of our political system,” he said. “However, many parties have come and gone in America. Who says that the two major parties right now will be the two major parties in 2050?”
“A Libertarian party is the only one that could possibly arise as a legitimate contender,” said Paul Roberts, a 50-year-old real estate agent from Georgia who attended the conference. “However, I think this would weaken the GOP.”
But for others, like Richardson, third-party libertarian thinking will draw away from the conservative movement.
Social issues had libertarians refusing to vote for either candidate on the ballot, which led to more Democrats winning, said Richardson. “We both don’t want Democrats,” he said.
In the straw poll, attendees chose Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) as their favored 2016 hopeful. Sen. Paul led the other 23 candidates on the ballot with 25 percent of the vote.
“The new GOP, the GOP that will win again, will need to embrace liberty in both the economic and personal sphere,” Paul said during his speech on Thursday.
Keara Vickers, campus coordinator for Students for Liberty, is a registered Libertarian. She supported Paul during his filibuster and said she was leaning towards casting a ballot for him at the straw poll.
“The GOP is losing a lot on social issues,” she said. The Republican Party “needs to do some soul searching to find the heart of America.” She sees more people responding to the libertarian message of “fiscal responsibility and social tolerance.”
Michael Potaski, state committeeman for the Massachusetts Republican Party, also thinks that the conservative brand is weakening.
“I think the GOP is trying to find its way by trying to accommodate all positions,” Potaski said. “It’s weakening itself. By abandoning principles, you end up with nothing. I think the GOP has to decide what it stands for … this nonsense about a bigger tent weakens the brand. People now wonder what the Republican Party is.”
He said libertarianism should be able to stand on its own and “win elections on their own.”
In Massachusetts, Potaski has seen a decline in GOP registration. He said independents have abandoned the GOP because it “doesn’t stand for anything anymore” and has “abandoned its grass roots.”
“The establishment can’t see that it’s driving people away,” Potaski said. He said he could not increase enrollments until the Republican Party stands for something that will bring people back in.
Wisconsin Gov. Walker thinks he has been doing just that in his state by moving people away from government dependence to “true independence.”
“In America, we believe in the people and not in the government.”
He said Wisconsin is gaining jobs and 93 percent of employers are saying that his state is going in the right direction. That direction is not standing with big business or unions, but “hardworking taxpayers of America.”
“The federal government did not create the states, the states created the federal government,” Walker said. “Real reform does not happen in our nation’s capital, it happens in our state houses across this country.”