For years I’ve attended the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. CPAC is the mecca of conservatism. Every able-bodied conservative must at some point in his or her lifetime make the pilgrimage to CPAC. The place is a conservative cornucopia, the direct legacy and embodiment of the movement of Reagan, Buckley, Kirk. I have not missed a CPAC in years, and I usually speak and do book signings there.
This year, a strange set of circumstances ensured that a major Republican presidential debate would occur (in Detroit) on the Thursday evening of CPAC. None of the faithful wanted to miss it. CPAC organizers wisely arranged to broadcast it on the giant screens in the main ballroom. Thus, thousands gathered there to watch the highly anticipated debate.
I listened carefully as the debaters were introduced. For John Kasich, there was tepid applause, polite, subdued. For Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, there was raucous applause, loud, boisterous. Then came Donald Trump, and the jeers. There were some cheers, but they were far and away drowned out by booing. “Wow,” I said to a person next to me. “That’s very telling.”
It turned out to be merely the opening salvo of an anti-Trump barrage that continued all evening. To CPAC watchers, Donald Trump was unquestionably the most unpopular man on the Detroit stage, and Cruz and Rubio were the favorites. It was enlightening to observe from the vantage of a huge room of CPAC faithful, and it was also entertaining.
Most eye-opening was the response as Rubio and Cruz took their jabs at Trump, with Rubio landing the sharpest blows and really getting under Trump’s skin. I’m sure Trump’s unflinching devotees viewed their Donald as nothing short of Muhammed Ali that evening, so I will not attempt to convince them that he was in any way injured in the fight. But this much was indisputable: As Rubio jabbed, the crowd egged him on: “Get him, Marco!” When Cruz methodically sliced at Trump, the assembly likewise shouted approval. When Trump reverted to his standard technique — that is, name-calling — ripping Cruz as “Lying Ted” and Rubio as “Little Marco,” the crowd erupted with boos. All night long, the audience (which was very young) was hostile to Trump. They loved and laughed at Megyn Kelly’s videos of Trump contradicting himself. One college girl about 15-feet to my right stood on her chair on occasion to fully register her revulsion at Trump.
Alas, this brings me to my reason for writing today: As I watched this spectacle unfold at CPAC on Thursday, and as I observed the visceral reaction against Donald Trump at Conservative Central, I said aloud, “Trump would be nuts to come here on Saturday morning. It would be a huge mistake.”
Trump was scheduled to speak at 8:30 a.m. Saturday morning.
I further mumbled to the person next to me: “I guarantee that right now in this room there’s a Trump campaign person telephoning Trump’s handlers to keep him out of here Saturday morning.” They knew. They knew he would be resoundingly jeered, possibly prompting the master of insults to blow his top with one of his customary fits.
Imagine the damaging media headlines: “Donald Trump Booed at CPAC.” “Trump Shouted Down at Annual Gathering of Conservatives.” “Conservatives Protest Trump in Washington.” “Trump Calls CPAC Conservatives ‘Clowns,’ ‘Morons,’ ‘Idiots,’ ‘Liars,’ ‘Losers,’ ‘Lightweights.’”
Donald Trump emerged as a self-professed conservative less than a year ago. CPAC is a place of lifetime conservatives, where the likes of Cruz and Rubio have lifetime conservative ratings from the American Conservative Union (which runs CPAC) of 100 and 98, respectively. (Note: You can dislike or even despise one or two or even twenty votes by Cruz or Rubio, but over a lifetime of hundreds of votes, these two men have the most consistently proven conservative track record of any Republican frontrunner since Reagan.) Trump would have a lifetime conservative ranking near 0. The people who attend CPAC are savvy enough to know that, which is why they reacted as they did to Trump on the big screen.
Thus, the very next morning, Trump bailed out, canceling his CPAC appearance. The Donald stayed out of Dodge. His campaign came up with a last-minute excuse as to why he just couldn’t squeeze into his schedule the single most significant gathering of conservatives between now and November. Funny, Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich all found a way to get to CPAC — as did Ben Carson. All were received enthusiastically. In fact, the biggest applause lines that Cruz received on Friday afternoon and that an ailing Rubio (he had the flu but went to CPAC anyway) generated on Saturday morning were their shots at Trump for not being a conservative.
Finally, as further evidence of the anti-Trump sentiment at America’s premier gathering of conservatives, consider the results of the CPAC straw poll for president: Cruz 40%, Rubio 30%, Trump 15%, and Kasich with his customary single-digit performance, 8%. Frankly, I was surprised Trump got even that.
The sample size for the poll was nearly 2,700, which is a superb sample size of conservative opinion, especially given this hardcore gathering of the most informed and enthusiastic conservatives in America. The average age of those surveyed in the straw poll was mid-30s.
What does all this mean? It is further affirmation of the most salient fact in the Republican race: If you’re a conservative, your only legitimate choice for president is Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. It has never been Donald Trump. Informed conservatives know this. Those who refuse to concede it continue to be driven by anger and emotion more than ideology and reality.
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