“It’s time for leadership,” said a steely-eyed Carly Fiorina to a standing ovation from over 3,000 conservative activists in a packed ballroom at Dallas’s Omni Hotel last Saturday. But for Fiorina and the attendees at Americans For Prosperity’s Defending The American Dream Summit, as for far too many Americans, that leadership is nowhere to be found in Washington.
Leadership, or the lack of it, was the overwhelming theme at Defending The American Dream, an annual event AFP first took on the road in 2013 (Orlando) after six years in Washington. The summit presents its attendees with two days of high-profile stump speeches and copious breakout sessions with titles like “Outsmarting The Left On The Phones,” “#Hacking The Marketplace—Innovation In A Tough Economy” and “It’s About The Children: The Future Of School Choice,” but mostly it serves as a weekend of fellowship and comparing of notes for the hard core of Americans For Prosperity’s employees and 2.3 million members.
And therefore it was little surprise that when those who are expected to seek positions of leadership—like Fiorina and the nearly dozen or so headliners of the summit’s general session—were received as rock stars, while some of the breakout sessions at which the most productive education and training of the attendees were less well attended.
Conferences like this one—in which the accommodations, events, venue, and agenda were emblematic of the organization’s reputation as a highly-professional outfit—show the difficulty the Right has in organizing its troops for political battle against the other side. After all, the Left is little more than a coalition of people who want something from the government, and people who have a personal financial stake in the distribution of free stuff from Uncle Sugar are, shall we say, easily led.
But the typical AFP member is not. In Dallas last week, the attendees were most often mature, successful both professionally and in family life and engaged politically of recent vintage. These were capable people, the type of army that were it mobilized with the kind of discipline the Left can often impose on its people could rain down Shermanesque destruction on its political foes. Except discipline of the unionist or “civil rights” variety is impossible with such a volunteer army, and that was fairly clear watching the Defending The American Dream breakout sessions.
At a panel on how stupidity at the federal government level has manifested itself in the VA, EPA, and Obamacare, for example, the first question was about Common Core. At a panel on overregulation and cronyism and their devastating effects on economic growth, there was a lengthy question about a lack of academic freedom for PhD candidates. And when AFP’s Louisiana chapter sought to interview attendees in order to produce a video series highlighting Sen. Mary Landrieu’s poor record on economic policy, they found themselves explaining more than once that abortion policy isn’t among the issues the organization highlights.
How to focus and motivate a capable army of minutemen (and women) at a conference like this? Give them big-name speakers, some of whom might be on the presidential ballot in the 2016 primaries. Give them leaders. Among this year’s speakers were Rick Perry, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Pence, Marsha Blackburn, Ben Carson, NASCAR legend Kyle Petty, and Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute.
From Perry, an indictment of President Obama’s performance on foreign policy, and an assessment of his hand on the tiller: “American leadership is needed now more than ever. Presidential leadership is needed now more than ever.” From Cruz, an endorsement of Perry’s decision to put the Texas National Guard on the border and disgust at Obama’s inaction: “The crisis on the border is caused directly by President Obama’s lawlessness.” And a joke: “There’s a diet popular in Washington: the Obama diet. You simply let Putin eat your lunch every day.”
From Paul, a blistering assault on prospective 2016 Democrat frontrunner Hillary Clinton and her performance as Obama’s Secretary of State, calling the Benghazi disaster the “tip of the iceberg:” “If Hillary worked for Bill Clinton she’d be fired by now.” From Carson, a promise of a far more muscular approach to the growing jihadist threat: “If I was in charge, ISIS would be ISWAS.”
And from Whittle, a brilliant description of progressive liberalism as having derived from “magical thinking,” the same kind of detachment from logic which allows for the never-ending belief in the Loch Ness monster, a suspected air-breathing reptile that nonetheless has never been provably seen above the water line.
The event almost had the feel of a party convention, with a roster of speakers not far removed from what RNC might have on offer in Cleveland in two years. And the speeches could well reappear along Lake Erie in 2016.
Until then, though, it will be up to AFP to continue building its army of volunteers and activists against taxes and regulation in the absence of a single galvanizing figure on the right. And for all the resources which can produce stellar events like Defending The American Dream, that mobilization will remain a challenge. As one of AFP’s field director said, “These people, they don’t want to listen to the government. Why are they gonna listen to a 24-year old with an iPad telling them these knocks and calls will make a difference in their lives?”
Those knocks and calls are essential, however. They’re essential to taking the Senate in the fall; they’re essential to beating back destructive policies—or to pursue good ones—at the state level; they’re essential to enforcing conservative discipline on sometimes-wayward congressmen; and they’re essential to building an organization that can keep Mrs. Clinton, or worse, out of the White House in 2016.
In Dallas, though, while an occasional distraction into issues of tertiary importance might slow down the proceedings a commitment to the cause is not in question. AFP soldiers on to defend the dream, over 3,000 of its core people having freshly dined on red meat served by those who would lead the conservative movement.