Most of the Republicans who are considered top-tier candidates to run for president in 2016 were present at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, including Ryan, whose speech focused on policies touted during his 2012 vice presidential candidacy.
The grass-roots activists that fuel the Republican Party’s gas tank appeared less divided during the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference than they did in flux as they try to determine which road to take next, and whom to follow.
With bitter 2012 election losses still on their minds, it might be easy to interpret the debates at CPAC as a movement — and, by extension, a political party — torn asunder. But the respectful tone that accompanied panels exploring immigration changes, candidate recruitment and the role of the U.S. in the world, and the equally raucous applause that greeted speeches by varied political figures such as Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., suggest otherwise.
“It’s not fighting, but it’s strong and passionate discussions and I think that it’s great for us. And, not only that, it helps the Republicans to have that passionate discussion,” said Micheline Doan, a 60 year-old CPAC attendee from Vancouver, Wash. “We’re still looking for the one that enlightens us — that lights us up again. I think that’s the fight. Who is going to be the one that’s going to come in and regenerate us like [Ronald] Reagan?”
Clearly, disagreements over the way forward remain to be negotiated. Should conservatives ease up on their opposition to same-sex marriage, as many young activists favor, and as Paul suggested in a speech to CPAC that called for “liberty” in the personal sphere? Should conservatives maintain their Reagan and Bush era commitments to a vigorous international military presence, as many older conservatives believe and as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., signaled he favored in his CPAC address?
But as Doan stated, failing to win the White House last November and the ongoing frustration many conservatives have with House Republicans on Capitol Hill have left the movement’s activists hungering more for new, exciting leadership than it has searching for new principles.
The 40th CPAC featured most of the Republicans considered top-tier 2016 presidential candidates, including House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee.
That does not mean losing the presidential race and dropping congressional seats hasn’t spurred a push to adapt, and in some cases adopt, new positions on key matters of public policy.
Nowhere was that more clear than during a vigorous debate over how conservatives and the GOP should approach the immigration legislation currently under discussion in Congress, and what position they should take on whether to grant a path to legalized status for illegal immigrants who currently reside in the U.S.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.