By the time President Trump speaks Saturday afternoon at the Gaylord Hotel National Harbor, the thousands of activists at the 48th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) will have heard from dozens of Republican politicians, authors, strategists, and media personalities. As important as any of the other speakers might be, none will pack the Potomac Ballroom the way Trump will. It’s an election year, and Trump’s speech at CPAC can be considered the official launch of his 2020 campaign for reelection.
With socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont currently leading the field of Democratic presidential contenders to face Trump in November, the contrast could scarcely be clearer. Trump has repeatedly vowed — most recently in his State of the Union address — that “America will never be a socialist country.” Democrat primary voters seem intent on putting that proposition to the test, and Sanders’ promises of “Medicare for All,” free college tuition, and all the rest are as direct a challenge as any conservative could ever hope to see. Perhaps not since 1984, when Democrat Walter Mondale ran against Ronald Reagan with a promise to raise taxes, has the American electorate faced such a stark choice.
Activists gathered for this year’s conference were in a confident, cheerful mood Wednesday night. Down in CPAC Central, attendees enjoyed free cocktails at an evening reception amid the exhibition booths. Upstairs in the Belvedere lobby bar, I bumped into Vincent Kreul, a staffer for Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso. Vince and I go way back to Tea Party days, when he was on the campaign staff of Morgan Griffith in Virginia’s Ninth District in 2010. What a wild year that was, when Republicans gained a historic 63 House seats and ended Nancy Pelosi’s first tenure as Speaker of the House (see “The Republican Mandate,” The American Spectator, November 24, 2010). Like many other CPAC attendees, Kreul had a cross of ashes on his forehead for Ash Wednesday and was completely sanguine about facing the Democrats in the fall campaign.
That the Tea Party spirit of a decade ago carries on in the Trump age is testimony to the continuity of the conservative movement. While some disgruntled former Republicans — Bill Kristol and the Never Trump crowd — have claimed that our president has somehow betrayed the “principles” of the movement, the people who actually constitute the movement are still carrying on. At the Belvedere bar, I happened to run into a guy who, more than 40 years ago, was an intern for the late M. Stanton Evans, godfather of conservative journalism. If there is any cleavage between the movement that Evans advocates and the movement Trump leads, my new acquaintance at the bar didn’t seem to notice it. Nor did Duane Lester, longtime conservative blogger, who was having a Crown Royal on ice nearby. Now a grassroots organizer for Americans for Prosperity, Lester was as implacably calm as ever, sitting at a table with an editor for Campus Reform. The pet theme of the liberal media — “Republicans divided!” — was nowhere in evidence at the Gaylord lobby bar, nor down the street where Stephen Green of PJ Media was enjoying a club sandwich and cold beverage. Green and I go way back, too; I remember watching him blog Sarah Palin’s first major public speech at the Republican convention in 2008.
Where is the “crisis” within the conservative movement that the media assured us was an inevitable consequence of Trump’s presidency? Nowhere in sight at CPAC, and I didn’t see anyone at the Gaylord identified with the notorious “alt-right,” either. It seemed to be the same conservative movement I’ve been covering at these conferences for more than a decade. The only difference from previous gatherings is that this year they’re getting ready to reelect a president. Sixteen years have elapsed since conservatives last had that chance, and with the Democrats deeply divided by Sanders’ candidacy, prospects for victory in November promise to make this year’s CPAC a fun-filled, upbeat event.
Don’t expect to read that cheerful news in the mainstream media, however. Every year, the liberal media descend on CPAC looking for controversy and scandal, and organizers have long since become accustomed to this negative media spin. What is impossible for anyone watching the conference on TV to understand is how much of what happens at CPAC has nothing to do with the speeches on the main ballroom stage. It’s a gigantic party — “Mardi Gras for the Right,” as I’ve called it — where activists network and have a good time.
This year’s CPAC promises to be one of the best parties ever, mainly because of the man who will deliver Saturday’s closing speech. Donald Trump has helped lead the movement out of the wilderness and into the White House, and in politics, there is no substitute for victory.