I skipped town before they revealed the results of the annual CPAC straw poll, though I’d dutifully navigated the main hallway through the ten or so lines of bright-eyed college students looking to leave their mark on the tradition by skewing the results toward Rand Paul. Putting the straw poll outpost perpendicular to the waves of people flooding out of CPAC’s main ballroom had the twin effects of inciting a maddening claustrophobia among the crowds (thus, perhaps, encouraging alcohol consumption at the nightly parties), and making everyone hate the concept of trading free t-shirts for a moment of publicity everyone sloughs off anyway.
I voted for Donald Trump, honestly. Why, you might ask, as a member of the media, was I interested in having my vote counted at all? Call me a glutton for punishment. Not because I support his policies (to be honest, I abhor most of them) but Donald Trump was at least honest about his faux-seriousness, and I liked his tie. And when I made a valiant attempt at interviewing him, he used such a vast array of profanity that even I was impressed. Sure, within fifteen minutes of him taking the oath of office, there’d be a national requirement that everyone attend a seminar on real estate opportunities, and bombers would be flying out over the Middle East ready to obliterate something — anything — within range provided it had an appropriately enemy-ish sounding name, anyone with that sort of dogged commitment to such an improbable hairstyle can’t help but be steadfast in the face of even damning criticism.
And at least Donald Trump owns a beauty pagent, whereas the rest of the lot was just preening in one.
I mean that in the nicest way possible, of course. CPAC is an event for choirs and not conversions. In the last few years, it’s gained a notoriety that has made it a public spectacle, but the true purpose of the Conservative Political Action Conference is to impress the hordes of College Republicans, with their Brooks Brothers finery and their as-yet-unpickeled livers, and the elderly crowd that has been coming to these things since the first Republican presidential candidate painted his foreign policy on a cave wall — not to preach to the disenfranchised independents and unmoored moderates. The candidates have all the depth of a Lego mini-figurine and the speeches are as nuanced and complex as a made-for-television marine life-motivated disaster movie. And that’s just how it’s supposed to be, especially at the start of a presidential election cycle, when potential candidates are trying to live up to impressive double standards set for them by a party that is, itself, in flux. Everyone who presented himself to the crowd amassed at National Harbor had something to prove, specifically to conservatives, whether that was that they were conservative enough, that they were thoughtful enough, that they were tough enough, or that they were capable of mounting a campaign that did more than annoy network television anchors forced to divert more than thirty seconds of their broadcast away from fawning coverage of Hillary Clinton’s breakfast choices.
So, in essence, it is a beauty pageant. But if there’s any suggestion that could be made to improve CPAC expontentially, it would be to dispense with the pretense that parading the potential candidates in front of the crowd as though we were truly interested in what they have to say rather than whether they would be able to best Barack Obama in a mud wrestling contest, and adopt the beauty pageant format altogether. Consider how it could revolutionize partisan politics: everyone is asked the same questions in lightning round by a hologram of Ronald Reagan, to which they have to provide the same answers and are judged against one another with an Applause-o-Meter that gradually weeds out those unprepared for the rigors of higher office. Once eliminated, the candidate can only re-enter the competition by surviving the horrors of “media row,” where they must dodge a loud-talking Joe Scarborough, and intense onslaught of Huffington Post bloggers, two Twitter feminists, and a blogger dressed in a Revolutionary War hero costume and brandishing a snowball microphone for their “podcast.” After this comes the swimsuit competition, where instead of the gradual stripping we witnessed in the current format (the speakers went from full suits to jeans in less than 48 hours), Jeb Bush can follow through on his threat to expose his boxers, Ted Cruz can flex his “prison body,” and Rick Santorum can prove just how much that sweater vest actually hides. Following that, the talent portion of the evening. Because you know Marco Rubio twirls a mean flaming baton.
You know you’d watch that. Hell, you’d pay money to watch that. You’d pay the CPAC entrance fee to watch that. I know I would. Because then the whole matter would all make perfect sense, and would fit with the level of reality-television seriousness we’ve begun to accord to our presidential nomination process. And, to top it off, a public service announcement about the spread of STDs among teenagers having pre-marital sex would even make sense, and not mark the first time that someone has mentioned genital herpes at the nation’s largest gathering of conservative activists. At least, not in public. And it would totally explain why Jeb Bush trotted around to Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk.”
In all seriousness, this year’s CPAC did seem more hopeful than the events of years past. I say this because the visible alcohol consumption seemed to be way down, and the spirits of attendees seemed to be way up, even if most of the speeches cut into lunch periods. I take that as a solid reason for confidence in 2016. It could be, of course, that the attendees were at least vaguely aware that the Netroots Nation would face the same depressing slate of presidential options they would, including an unwelcome throwback to the glory days of the late 1990s, or they’ve already resigned themselves to the comic relief a Clinton presidency will deliver, or because they were so elated with their Dr. Ben Carson calendars and oil industry stress balls that they’d departed reality, but they were at least a bunch of happy warriors.
And that bodes well for our future, prime-time cable presidential candidate elimination program or not.
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