Morning at CPAC

by Robert Costa

National Review is at National Harbor today, right on the lip of the Potomac River in suburban Maryland. The annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a project of the American Conservative Union, started early, and the convention center is packed with College Republicans, veteran right-wing activists, reporters, and senior citizens.

The theme of the talks has, generally speaking, been optimism. Speakers have taken care to buck up the attendees. Even in President Obama’s second term, they say, there is hope for the future. Audience members have been receptive to this message, but in the hallways many say they remain anxious about the conservative future.

Here are the highlights, so far.                                                                                               

Ken Cuccinelli
Cuccinelli, the leading candidate for the Virginia GOP’s gubernatorial nomination, started out the conference with a long, low-key discourse on founding principles, but he eventually got to politics. Late in his speech, he blasted his Democratic rival, Terry McAuliffe, for “renting out” the Lincoln bedroom while he was a fundraiser for President Clinton. “We want to try to protect the Lafayette Bedroom in Virginia from the same thing,” he said.

Most interesting, however, was Cuccinelli’s passage about his policy agenda, which included a few ideas that aren’t often at the top of any Republican’s wish list, such as prison-sentence reform. In this sense, it was a quiet push for compassionate conservatism, at least in tone. He argued, for example, that a governor “must be willing to speak for those citizens who do not have a voice,” and protect “our most vulnerable.”

Cuccinelli faces an uphill challenge in his purple, almost-blue state, so it wasn’t surprising to see him play down his image as a conservative warrior. Yes, he talked up his criticism of Obamacare and environmental regulations, but he didn’t make his battle with Obama seem personal. His approach is unlikely to alienate centrists in northern Virginia. In fact, it may earn some praise.

Allen West
West, a former Florida congressman, sounded as if he never left his unofficial post as the House GOP’s fieriest member. His speech was like a gulp of strong coffee, and full of barbs aimed at the president. He also heaped praise upon the conservative greats, such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Buckley, and said their example continues to inspire, especially as the Left ascends.

There were no real surprises in West’s speech, but he had some memorable lines. During his riff on national defense, he caused a stir on Twitter when he said, “Real security comes from the Marine Corps and not the Peace Corps.” He then talked about his national stature and why it irritates liberals. “There is nothing on this green earth that a liberal fears more than a black American who wants a better life and a smaller government,” he said.#more#

The crowd loved that. It appears West may be interested in running again, or simply being a prominent figure in the conservative movement. Either way, even out of office, he clearly has a place in the conservative firmament. After he finished, the early risers gave the former Army colonel a standing ovation.

Pat Toomey
Senator Toomey’s remarks were frank and even-tempered, and his speech was an update about the latest fiscal happenings on Capitol Hill. He criticized the Senate Democrats’ budget, which is chock full of tax hikes, and he rapped the Obama administration’s sequestration drama. “They can’t accept cutting anything, ever,” he said. “John Maynard Keynes died a long time ago, and I wish we could just let the man rest in peace.”

Toomey, who was elected to the Senate in 2010, has been a favorite on the conservative scene for many years, but since he represents swing-state Pennsylvania, he doesn’t proffer the same type of red meat as West and other tea-party darlings. His sweet spot is gently lecturing about the size of government and the excesses of the Left—more substance than flash.

“The fact is the policies that got us into this mess were the policies of a big government, liberal policies, the failed monetary policy, encouraging lending to people who couldn’t pay loans back,” Toomey said. “It was the Left that got us into this mess. That’s the fact. And we never had a compelling narrative to explain that, and that’s why we lost a lot of ground.”