Sarah Palin’s speech closing the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference was enjoyable in large part because there was so little at stake. Having resigned an executive office midway through her term, the former governor of Alaska is well and truly retired from retail politics — a status reflected in the CPAC straw poll, in which Palin garnered only 2 percent of the vote.
Among presidential hopefuls and prospects, the straw poll delivered strong results for Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who took first place with 31 percent, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who placed with 11 percent; and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a long shot with no political experience who showed with 9 percent.
Disappointing showings by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who took fourth place with 8 percent, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who pulled in 6 percent, show how those former power hitters have slumped. Both are already in danger of becoming stars of yesteryear. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Senator Rick Santorum could be said to have gotten a push, with 7 percent each. Neither is on at the top of anybody’s list of likely presidents, but both did okay.
Despite an impressive self-reinvention and sterling record as the longest-serving executive of Texas, Governor Rick Perry drew a meager 3 percent, tying with wonkish Wisconsin representative Paul Ryan — a casualty of the 2012 Romney/Ryan ticket — and barely outscoring CPAC non-attendee Condoleezza Rice, who got 2 percent. While Perry’s speech Friday succeeded in removing some of the stench of his bumbling 2012 primary effort, he leaves the Gaylord with no momentum.
Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, who is giving up her House seat next year but still seems to harbor electoral ambitions, got even worse news. The 2012 presidential hopeful did not even show up on the straw poll’s roster of 1-percent-or-more vote getters.
The less-than-energized conference did, however, demonstrate that the death of the Tea Party has been greatly exaggerated.
After reports that this conference would show a Republican-party establishment back in control amid a general fading of Tea-Party energy, the conference followed a pattern that has characterized GOP events since at least 2008: When the small-government zealots are not around, you can hear a pin drop. When a member of the Paul family shows up, there’s so much energy in the place it almost seems like Republicans can win an election.
Nowhere was this more evident than in a highly combative panel on privacy Friday, during which former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore was repeatedly booed and catcalled for being the least anti-National Security Agency voice in the discussion. The mid-sized audience was fired up against even a Republican-approved version of the security state.
This libertarian wave continued throughout the conference, and the smartest presenters tried to ride it. The CPAC audience responded enthusiastically to all mentions of drug legalization. And pollster Pat Caddell broke the applause meter Saturday in a presentation that laid into the party establishment with a vengeance, reiterating his charge that the GOP establishment actually supports the Obama Internal Revenue Service’s persecution of Tea-Party nonprofit groups. Caddell’s fellow panelists questioned that assertion, but the dynamic was clear: The more Caddell ripped into the RINOs, the more the crowd loved him.
These data points could merely indicate the meaninglessness of CPAC and other GOP events. Rand Paul’s father used to be the only act that got crowds on their feet at Republican events too, but in two straight presidential elections he failed to turn that energy and fundraising advantage into primary wins.
But whatever peace the GOP establishment seemed to have imposed on the Tea Party hasn’t sunk in among the faithful. The Tea Party has been pronounced dead every year since 2009 (though oddly it also gets blamed for an ever-growing list of troubles). But for the Republican insurgency, it’s still a dead man’s party.