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Conservatives solemnly gathered in Washington on Thursday for their annual conference and pep rally as they prepare to move into what they view as the final fight of a 100-year war with progressivism.
Unlike years past, when the Conservative Political Action Conference crowd was teeming with funky hats and colorful vests loaded down with buttons declaring the wearer’s fealty to various causes and figures, this year’s gathering has been a far more business-minded affair.
For every sighting of a revolutionary re-enactor or conservative actress Victoria Jackson during Thursday’s events, there were hundreds of well-dressed, serious-minded college students or middle-aged businessmen studiously taking notes during each speaker’s speech.
Of the estimated 5,500 attendees and most of the 1,200 credentialed “media” at CPAC, a significant portion are college students, part of a youth movement that has increasingly skewed the conference’s demographic.
But although that youth contingent at previous conventions brought with it almost a party atmosphere, most attendees this year were gravely serious and intense.
On the dais of the Marriott Wardman Park Ballroom, lawmakers, conservative commentators and movement leaders reflected the crowd’s angry, determined mood.
Lawmakers repeatedly lashed out at President Barack Obama for practicing what Republicans have come to label the “politics of division.”
“What we have seen is unprecedented in American history. ... We are led by a president who has decided to pit Americans against each other,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said.
“That’s the kind of thought process that people come here to get away from. And it’s never worked anywhere it has been tried,” said Rubio, the son of immigrants from Cuba.
“He’s running for re-election, and he’s doing it in a very cynical way. ... He’s going to demonize, he’s going to punish success,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a conservative movement darling after his 2010 defeat of then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D).
But even as they were decrying divisive language, Republicans were using plenty of it themselves.
“The president’s job is to unite the country, not divide it. His job is to bridge differences, not aggravate them, to encourage success, not to condemn it, to encourage debate, not to suppress it,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said. “This president seems to have forgotten that he was elected to lead all Americans, that he was elected to be president of the United States, not the Occupy Wall Street fan club.
“What liberals just can’t seem to accept is the idea of free people and free institutions pursuing happiness as they see fit, with a deep respect for the rights and difference of others, without the heavy hand of government trying to direct their lives and their destinies for them,” McConnell added.
Sen Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who gave perhaps the most staid speech of the day, put a finer point on it. “The Democratic government has organized those that are getting something from government, that want something from government. And the rest of the country has got to get organized” to oppose them, DeMint told the crowd.
Some speakers took a more moderate tone even while attacking Obama’s policies. While criticizing the president’s economic and fiscal policies, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) conceded: “I don’t think the president is guilty of bad intentions. A misguided philosophy? Yes. But not bad intentions.”
Bu in general, the hostility toward Democrats and the White House was often intensely visceral, particularly during Rep. Steve King’s speech.
The Iowa Republican, who has never been shy about using heated rhetoric, repeatedly referred to Capitol custodians as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) “Stasi troops,” an apparent reference to the old East German secret police, when recounting his efforts to use “black market Edison bulbs” instead of new energy-efficient models in his office. King also derided first lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign.
Other speakers were more personal in their attacks.
While discussing the administration’s contraception policies, conservative columnist Cal Thomas quipped that MSNBC host Rachel Maddow “is the best reason for her parents to have used contraception.”
Similarly, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said that President Jimmy Carter’s energy and foreign policies led to the “modern-day jihadism.”
Ironically, Bachmann, whose failed presidential campaign was plagued by verbal missteps, provided one of the rare moments of levity during Thursday’s session.
Discussing her numerous gaffes, Bachmann wryly noted that “running for president of the United States is one series of humiliations after another.”