CPAC-the political convention that is to conservatives what ComicCon is to nerds-did not sort out the Republican field for 2016, but it did reveal something much scarier. Unlike most years when Republicans insist they should fight for ideals they never define, this time conservatives sketched out a frighteningly radical agenda. Taking CPAC speakers at their word, the next Republican generation will make us pine for the comparatively bi-partisan moderation and restraint that characterized the George W. Bush administration.
The surest way to whip the overwhelmingly older, male, and white CPAC conventioneers into a frenzy was to play up the notion that the problem is that Republicans have been too cooperative, too compromising.
“If you want to lose elections, stand for nothing. When you don’t stand and draw a clear distinction, when you don’t stand for principle, Democrats celebrate,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, ignoring how polls punished his party when he “stood for principle” and shut down the government.
“We’ve got to start talking about what we’re for, not what we’re against,” said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“It’s time for a rebellion on the battlefield of ideas,” said Rick Perry. The Texas Governor loves guns so much he jogs with a loaded handgun, but if a “battlefield of ideas” exists then Perry’s an unarmed pacifist.
It is easy to mock a political convention that invited Donald Trump to speak, much less attend, but his stale anti-immigration harangue was no worse than most. Cruz advocated “repealing every single word of ObamaCare” and abolishing the IRS. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio mocked the United Nations and backed the same aggressive unilateralism that we are still cleaning up after in Iraq. Adorably, Perry came out as pro-postal service: “Deliver the mail, do it on time and, heck, do it on Saturdays.” Heck, indeed!
It was their new ideas that should scare the bejesus out of Americans. Rep. Paul Ryan is recognized as the pre-eminent conservative thought leader, but that’s like being heaviest blade of grass. At CPAC, he dressed austerity in compassion’s clothes, saying, “What they are offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul. The American people want more than that.” Yes, but we don’t feed souls by starving bellies, and Paul’s budget cuts food stamps by $125 million.
Public school teachers came in for some abuse at CPAC from Christie and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who said, “Wouldn’t it be special . . . if we actually hired, fired, compensated our teachers based on how well teachers are doing rather than simply how long the teachers had been breathing in the classroom?”
Behind this contempt for teachers is a drive toward using standardized testing scores to measure the effectiveness of teachers, something education historian Diane Ravitch has called “junk science.” But labeling public schools as failing and teachers as ineffective for reasons beyond their control will open the door to radical and unconstitutional change.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott described this as a parental utopia that would effectively privatize America’s public schools and force taxpayers to subsidize religious indoctrination. Parents “should be free to choose home schooling, public schools, charter schools, parochial schools,” said Scott. “Because when the parents have the choice, the kids have a chance.”
To be fair, it wasn’t all dumb and dumber. Sen. Rand Paul, whose curly hair looks like it covers a skull containing an actual working brain, took a real risk by joining with Attorney General Eric Holder to push for ending mandatory minimum sentences. Allowing federal judges to exercise discretion with non-violent drug offenders could return some needed sanity to our criminal justice system. And maybe this once, Paul will be the Republican who survives working with Obama.
The big winner of CPAC was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whom Perry and Christie praised in their speeches. Because he’s facing re-election at home, Walker skipped CPAC, sparing him the unflattering exposure of being measured against the lesser lights onstage at CPAC. With apologies to Perry, maybe the only way to win a battle of wits with Republicans is never to fight in the first place.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @JasStanford.