In which I encounter new faces & old friends: CPAC 2013, day 2

National Harbor, MD

Day two, evening:  Folks are here from all over the country. My lunch companions included six college students from three states: Colorado, Minnesota, Ohio.

The programs so far, and the main speakers, have made clear to me that the life issues definitely have a place on the conservative menu, but there is reluctance to make them the main course. I’ve seen that for years. One reason I came here was to check my New Hampshire observations against what’s happening nationwide.

The challenge, and the good news, is this: forget about the GOP or a “conservative movement” leading the way on the right to life. They can’t & they shouldn’t & they don’t want to. Rank & file activists will do the pro-life work and force refinement of the message. Yes, there are charismatic politicians like Rubio who are proudly pro-life. Others are skittish or are openly pro-Roe, no matter what the party platform says. Fine. Let them take their cues from us, not the other way around.

Dick Morris, consultant/commentator/pundit, had ten minutes of mic time yesterday all to himself, and he posited that the GOP chased away single white women with its views on abortion. (Of course he prefaced that by saying we shouldn’t abandon our pro-life views.) Excuse me; did anyone hear the GOP pressing the issue? I sure didn’t, and I was in the thick of things. The GOP let the Dems craft the message. Morris and I can agree at least on that: messaging is crucial and we need to work on it.

Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, a PAC dedicated to electing pro-life women, was part of a panel today about the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. She called Morris out, and I wish he’d been there to hear it. She called last year’s GOP refusal to engage the Dems on the life issues “unilateral disarmament.” She warned that Republicans are doomed to fail if that’s done in the next election cycle. “We are poised to emulate the success of other human rights movements, but we need a champion.”

A quieter, much lower-attendance panel met in the afternoon to discuss religious freedom as a winning issue for conservatives. That means, of course, the HHS mandate, which otherwise got short shrift at this weekend’s festivities.

morning: Random observation here: Allen West is as personable a man as I’m likely to find here. He walks through the halls of the convention with one person accompanying him, rather than the posse most of the speakers have, and he chats with people. Good to see. I must add that some of the speakers might not have much of a choice in the number of security & staff around them. National Harbor is bristling with police during CPAC.

Paul Ryan got the warmest, wildest welcome this morning that I’ve seen at the conference so far. He spoke in the ballroom this morning right after Kelly Ayotte, who was abruptly eclipsed the moment Ryan was introduced. No one else here can talk about prosaic matters like the budget with so much energy and verve. He stayed on the budget message and didn’t drift into other issues. It was a forward-looking speech, devoid of nostalgia and bitterness, either of which might be tempting for lesser folk after November’s results. No snark, no snarl, no yelling. The crowd loved him before, during, and after he spoke.

The panel that followed him was “CSI Washington: a November 2012 Autopsy.” I find it telling that the panel had only a scattered audience. When Ryan left, people streamed out of the ballroom. I listened for awhile as Michael Barone of the Washington Examiner pointed out the technological superiority of the Democratic effort last year. (As an ex-GOP staffer, I will never be able to hear the word “orca” again without choking.) Former Congresswoman Ann Marie Buerkle of Michigan made a different point, just as apt: “my opponent ran a national campaign.” She said she has daughters and granddaughters, went to law school in her 40s, was the first woman elected to Congress from her district, “and they still painted me as part of the war on women.” She wanted eight debates during the campaign, and her opponent (who won the election) agreed to two. The national Democratic party, in Buerkle’s eyes, did all the campaigning and messaging very effectively. “They appealed to fear, and it worked.”

Neither Buerkle nor anyone else I’ve heard so far has blamed social issues per se for the defeat, but many – Buerkle and commentator Dick Morris most of all – warned that messaging has to change and the GOP has to “reach out, not write off,” in Morris’s words.

What I have NOT heard: what that messaging should be. I have also not heard anyone point out what is to me the glaringly obvious point that Republican candidates, particularly Republican men, don’t know how to deliver a conservative social-issues message to anyone who doesn’t already agree with them.  They have had no practice. Persuasion is a dying art, and modern politics is delivering the coup de grace, in my opinion. You can’t sharpen an argument by dodging challenges to it, and those challenges have got to come before a national spotlight goes on.

Enough ranting for the moment. I’m about to head to a lunchtime briefing with Rick Santorum, which will be followed by a top-tier forum on “The Fight for Religious Liberty 40 Years After Roe v. Wade.” My kind of stuff.

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