In which Dr. Ben Carson wows the crowd: CPAC 2013 day 3

Rand Paul won the CPAC straw poll, squeaking out a victory over Marco Rubio, with no other contender coming close. Good to see two pro-life politicians scoring big. I’d feel even better if I thought their pro-life stands accounted for the 1-2 finish.

On this last day of CPAC, I left early so I could do some sightseeing. I was sorry to miss Sarah Palin, but while I was there, some powerful pro-life speakers graced the main stage. Here was one speaker after another asserting the importance of the life issues. Here were top-tier speakers criticizing the HHS mandate and calling out the current Administration for its attacks on religious freedom. Here were people who get it.

Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots opened the program, with the room half-full, but that half was wildly enthusiastic. Just when I thought she was going to give ten dreary minutes on the debt and the evils of financial profligacy, she segued into the “Affordable” Care Act and skewered it.

“The Affordable Care Act is a con, callous and cruel. People will die under this law.” She exhorted her listeners to fight for life and liberty. She made no reference to the GOP.

Michele Bachmann was returned to Congress last November by her Minnesota district. She hasn’t lost her edge. By the time she took the stage, the hall was nearly full, and she knew how to work that crowd.

Rare among speakers, she attacked President Obama by name (not just saying “the Administration” or “the Democrats”) for one bad policy after another. With the notable exception of Marco Rubio, she was the only top-tier speaker I heard to cover many bases in her allotted fifteen minutes rather than stick to one topic. She was nearly drowned out by applause several times. She definitely understands the threat to religious freedom posed by Obamacare, and she knows how to sound an alarm.

By 10:00, the room was packed and the media pen was busy. Everyone wanted to hear from Dr. Ben Carson, who so memorably used the National Prayer Breakfast to take the President to task when the President was only two seats away.

Carson took the stage along with author Eric Metaxas, and Metaxas got to go first. He launched straight into the current attacks on religious freedom. “We are not talking about freedom of worship, which is radically different from freedom of religion.” He encouraged listeners to read and sign the Manhattan Declaration, which was drafted and signed by numerous American religious leaders of a variety of faiths who were troubled about the increasing pressure to render to Caesar those things which are properly God’s, beginning with individual conscience. Regarding the HHS mandate, Metaxas asserted “it has everything to do with religious freedom.” He said that even though he is not Catholic, he must defend the religious principles of Catholics who are fighting the mandate.

He went on to recognize that legal redefinitions of marriage are also attacks on religious freedom. He asked aloud today a question that has concerned me for quite awhile: “what is the government going to do to churches that dissent from the redefinition of marriage?” He noted that the GOP inexplicably failed to make the case for religious freedom in the last election. “We’ve been so blessed with religious freedom that we hardly recognize what it is anymore.”

Dr. Carson then took the microphone and quipped, “Eric made it unnecessary for me to talk about political correctness.” His style is far less fiery than that of Bachmann or Martin, but he had the crowd in the palm of his hand on the strength of his Prayer Breakfast speech. If you heard that speech, then you already know the substance of his talk today. It was interesting to hear him describe the wide range of responses he got to that speech. There was a lot of support, of course, “but I also got nasty-grams calling me the n-word for challenging the President.”

By way of advice, he said conservatives need to be proactive rather than reactive. He offered as an example the scholarship fund he and his wife set up 17 years ago for kids who do well academically and who also do humanitarian work. No whining, he seemed to be saying; get out there and work. “Americans have always been generous. We take care of our own. It is not the government’s responsibility, it is our responsibility.”  He further advised, “We have to resist this war on God.”

Carson is retiring from medical practice in June, and Metaxas asked him about his plans. Carson was coy. That tells me he’s planning to test the presidential waters, as if the Prayer Breakfast speech hadn’t already established that.

Thus ends my three-day report from the field. Tomorrow I’ll be back home, ready to tell our home crew of legislators what to do. It’s been interesting, though, to hear from the people who will be coming to New Hampshire before 2016 in search of volunteers and money and votes. I hope we’ll welcome them, listen politely to their pitches, and then insist on a firm stand on the right to life.

Seen at CPAC

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.

In which I get my bearings & fail at tech: CPAC day 1

National Harbor, MD

8:00 p.m.:  CPAC just tweeted that Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina will be introducing Mitt Romney tomorrow. I’m glad she’s coming, even briefly. She’s one of several Republican women in office I’d like to hear more about.

One of today’s Twitter hashtags about CPAC is #RINOcon. I roll my eyes at that. RINOs here? Sure. Does that sink the whole enterprise? NO. Remember, incidentally, that CPAC is put on by a private group. No speaker, RINO or hardliner, is here without an invitation. And what a blend there is.

There was much chatter among political commentators in recent weeks about who was and wasn’t invited to CPAC. GOProud, a group of gay conservatives, was either uninvited or disinvited, I’m not sure which; but the other day their executive director’s name turned up on the schedule for a third-tier panel on inclusion within the GOP. [Note: I have since learned that GOProud participated at the invitation of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, not the American Conservative Union. That’s a distinction without a difference, as far as I’m concerned. GOProud was able to reach CPAC’s attendees no matter who had extended the invitation.] That panel was held this evening, and I missed it, but I have heard two reports of standing-room-only. Chris Christie wasn’t invited, and he said that was fine with him. Donald Trump was squeezed into the schedule at the last minute. Dr. Ben Carson, after his dynamite speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, accepted an invitation. The exhibit hall is filled with groups of libertarians, pro-lifers, tax-cutters, legal defense groups, publishers, PR firms, and even a jeweler (lovely silver jewelry from Israel), united by nothing but a broad definition of “conservative.”

Everyone here would like to see Barack Obama retired. Aside from that, it’s wide open. That matters to me. This is not a pro-life convention, but a political one. I understand that there’s no platform at the door for us to sign. Even so, this is a congenial place for a pro-lifer.

But still … “RINOcon.” Kinda catchy, don’t you think?

2:30 p.m.:  I wasn’t surprised that Marco Rubio and Rand Paul drew a big crowd. They were booked back-to-back in the Potomac Ballroom, which is the prime real estate. In addition to a water joke, which has become an obligatory Rubio reference ever since he picked up a bottle of Poland Spring in his response to the State of the Union address, Rubio covered all the bases. He talked about economics, the right to life, the importance of the family, and what he called “the next big bubble”: student loans. He knew his audience. Most attendees look under age 30, and there are plenty who appear to be college-age.

Rubio’s speech ran pardonably long; what politician doesn’t want to keep talking to a supportive crowd? Paul was utterly unfazed when he finally got his turn. Huge ovation, of course; the post-filibuster glow is still on him. He carried two thick notebooks to the podium. “I was told I had ten lousy minutes. Just in case, I brought 13 hours’ worth of material.” Another ovation. Rubio has met his match as a crowd-pleaser.

Paul’s message is liberty and the Constitution. He stuck to that, never using the word “libertarian” while using “liberty” freely. He emphasized being Republican. No third-party talk from him.

Before Rubio and Rand, I came into the room in time to catch the end of a panel on the merits of a balanced budget amendment. One of the speakers was Grover Norquist, who spoke about tax policy with nearly alarming passion. I wonder if I’ll hear any speakers with comparable passion about the right to life. I’m all for controlling the amount of money I give to the government, but can we agree that life is more important?

Very serious stuff at my very first stop this morning: a screening of the 21-minute film 3801 Lancaster. That’s the address of Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s now-closed abortion facility in Philadelphia. Gosnell is awaiting trial on eight murder charges, for the deaths of one woman and seven babies. The babies were born alive after Gosnell’s attempt to abort them, and he killed them. None of this would have come to light if investigators hadn’t entered the facility to look into suspected diversion of prescription drugs. Gosnell’s facility operated legally, as far as the state of Pennsylvania was concerned, despite having been uninspected for years, despite filthy conditions, and despite reports (which the state refused to investigate) of women being harmed. This is something to ponder when an abortion facility operator anywhere gets indignant about close scrutiny. This is an important movie that I’m afraid won’t be seen by the people who need its information most: anti-abortion-regulation lawmakers. I strongly recommend this film, although it’s tough to watch. More on this later. It rates its own post, actually.

1:20 p.m.:  Quick description of this Conservative Political Action Conference: the site is an elegant resort, lovely and large and well-staffed. It’s also horrendously expensive, which is why my sleeping quarters are in a hotel 8 miles away. As with the March for Life, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the number of young people at the conference.

Follow me to CPAC for pro-life coverage

I’ll be taking Leaven slightly-outside the Beltway later this week, as I head to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland from Thursday through Saturday, March 14-15-16. There will be hundreds of reporters and bloggers there to follow every word from the rock stars at the main podium. I’m less interested in the rock stars, fascinating though they may be, than I am in the pro-lifers at the event. I am also interested in how politicians who spent all last year calling social issues a “distraction” talk about the pro-life movement now.

Why am I heading down there when I’m not getting paid? Because I honestly believe pro-lifers need to keep an ear to the ground and do their own reporting when politicians have a gathering like this. With all due respect to legacy media and conservative bloggers, news and commentary of interest to pro-life voters often gets lost in the shuffle. What I’ll be watching and listening for:

  • Who mentions social issues in a speech, and who doesn’t? Who writes off or scolds pro-lifers, or uses that dreaded d-word (“Distraction”)?
  • Do any of these potential candidates and policy wonks understand the religious liberty threat posed by Obamacare? Will any of them attack the HHS mandate, which by the way would be a winning issue for any candidate with the gumption to use it?
  • What’s the buzz about New Hampshire’s First-In-The-Nation primary? Many of these speakers will be making the rounds of our Old Home Days in a couple of years, if not earlier. Do they appreciate our state’s role in the process? [Post-CPAC note: this wasn’t addressed at the sessions I attended.]
  • There are three tiers of speakers and presentations at CPAC going on simultaneously, and some of the most interesting events are the less-heralded ones. That’s where the life-issue presentations are hidden, for the most part. I want to shine a light on them.
  • What’s in the exhibit hall, away from the cameras and mics?

And so forth. While I’ll be working from a schedule, I expect to improvise. Major media will cover the A-list speakers, so if I miss Donald Trump in favor of a panel on Obamacare, I won’t worry.

Pro-life, conservative, and Republican are not the same thing, although there is significant overlap. I have a stake in each camp, as a pro-life independent (and recovering Republican) who is conservative in many but not all respects. That’s the perspective I’m bringing to the party this weekend. CPAC is sponsored by the American Conservative Union, its main speakers are high-profile Republicans, and once-and-future candidates for high office will strut their stuff in front of thousands of activists, pitching for votes. I expect to be in blogger heaven.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte is one of the featured speakers Friday morning. [An earlier version of this post mentioned state Rep. Marilinda Garcia as one of the emcees; an updated schedule does not show her name.]

My apologies in advance to my email subscribers; I don’t mean to spam you. I will liveblog each day, and I hope not every update will trigger a message to your inbox. In addition, I’ll have special-feature posts as coverage demands.