WASHINGTON — Lines to see speeches at this year’s CPAC were as long as the wait for Disneyland’s Magic Mountain ride at the height of tourist season. At several points, the queue stretched back from the Omni Shoreham’s Regency Ballroom to the exhibition hall, curled around the wall, and kept right on going. If the people had waited single-file, the last man would have stood in the middle of the lobby.
The similarities to Disneyland didn’t end with the endless lines. There were also:
Mascots: A guy in a Flip Romney dolphin outfit was there to taunt the hundreds of young Romney campaigners that the former Massachusetts governor’s campaign had bused in to vote for him in the straw poll. One lady dressed as a Hershey’s Kiss for reasons that I never quite got around to discovering.
Heroes: Principally the American Fighting Man and Ronald Reagan.
Villains: Including Senator Hillary Clinton, the Democrat-controlled Congress (Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry: “They want to hug the terrorists. We want ta kill em”) and Senator John McCain, the only major Republican candidate running for president to give the convention a bye.
Barkers: The booths in the exhibition hall were staffed by folks from publishers, magazines, and interest groups — from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute to Encounter Books/The New Criterion to The American Spectator to Working Families for Wal-Mart.
Oddities: In a much-publicized address, Ann Coulter made an incoherent joke about John Edwards being a “faggot.” Jeff Gannon was there shaking hands. On Saturday afternoon, when exhibitors were packing it up, one guy was trying to fit a small open coffin into his car in the hotel carport.
Rides: One CPAC newbie asked if it was unusual to have a racecar simulator in the middle of the exhibition floor. Sadly, no.
This year’s CPAC was bigger and gaudier than all of the previous conventions for a reason. People turned out from all over the country numbers (6,300 registrants this year, up from 4,800 last year) because of the rare opportunity that this year’s event offered: face time.
With the oft-booed exception of McCain, every GOP hopeful spoke. Many did more than that: several candidates sponsored receptions; Romney walked the floor of the exhibition hall; I accidentally blocked Newt Gingrich’s access to paper towels in the men’s room. It was like someone had taken the state of New Hampshire and crammed it into a D.C. hotel for three days.
One thing it wasn’t was time for soul searching. Most people at CPAC didn’t see the Republican failure of the last election as a failure of conservatism but a failure of application. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told a surprisingly large crowd Thursday that “we’ve learned our lesson.”
It’s a lesson the most everybody at least claimed to believe. Senator Sam Brownback’s supporters tried to sell him as a “consistent conservative.” Romney and Giuliani appealed as best they could to conservatives, by pounding home (Romney) or stressing (Giuliani) every point on which they agreed.
Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore produced a relic — one of Ronald Reagan’s business cards, signed, from when he was governor of California — and charged that the big three in the race “are not conservatives.” He said Romney and Giuliani voted for Paul Tsongas and Mario Cuomo and then drew a flattering contrast with the audience: “There is not a person in this room that is so confused that they would have voted in those days for Paul Tsongas or Mario Cuomo.”
I surveyed the large crowd in the ballroom and thought that, surely, you could find one.
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