Looking for the Next Reagan
Thousands of election-weary conservatives gathered at a resort hotel outside Washington this week, trying to figure out what went wrong in last November’s election and how to fix it for the future.
The Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC, is a kind of melting pot for the conservative movement and a testing ground for future Republican presidential contenders. Conservative activists from around the country make an annual pilgrimage to Washington to attend the event to rub shoulders with conservative icons, radio talk show hosts and television anchors from the Tea Party Television network (yes, it exists!)
Most of the people I spoke with at the gathering say they draw a lot of energy from fellow conservatives. That’s probably even more important this year in the wake of last November’s election results that saw President Obama winning a second term in the White House and Republican losses in both the Senate and House of Representatives. But strolling the aisles at CPAC you also feel how relaxed these conservative activists are, excited to be among fellow true believers and not having to explain themselves to what Sarah Palin likes to call the “lame-stream” media every few minutes.
In search of a leader
That being said, there is some angst among conservatives about what the future may hold. They realize 2012 was a bad year for the movement, but they’re also wondering how they can make themselves more appealing to the electorate at large without compromising on key conservative principles like smaller government and individual rights.
Many of the older activists I spoke with still like to invoke the name of former president Ronald Reagan, a popular CPAC fixture going back to the 1970’s. But for the younger crowd, Reagan is a figure out of the history books. They’re much more interested in shopping for a new leader among a younger generation of Republican hopefuls that includes the likes of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan and New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte.
Rubio and especially Paul got enthusiastic receptions from the CPAC crowd. I’ve heard Rubio speak several times now and I always get the sense he feels compelled to prove his conservative credentials no matter what group he’s speaking to.
Paul on the other hand has a legitimate following, especially among younger conservatives. They love his focus on constitutional principles. And his recent Senate filibuster focused on the drone issue won him plaudits not only from conservatives but even from some liberal groups concerned with the civil liberties implications of targeting U.S. citizens with alleged links to terrorism.
Paul seems further ahead of Rubio in seeming to gear up for a presidential run in 2016. Paul would inherit the fervent supporters who stuck with his father, Ron Paul, during his presidential runs. He also has the potential to develop a younger following of his own. Rubio, though, would theoretically have wider appeal in the electorate and would give Republicans a chance to draw in some Hispanic voters, moderates and women.
Last year’s losing presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, got a warm reception when he spoke to CPAC. This is kind of ironic because Romney never could convince a lot of conservatives that he was truly one of them.
Romney did have some advice for conservatives and the Republican Party, even though he acknowledged it might seem strange coming from a losing candidate. He said one path to political success in the future is for Republicans nationally to emulate the 30 Republican governors in the states, some of whom are having success in trimming budgets and building popular support for conservative programs. As Romney departed the stage you couldn’t help wondering how much of a role he’ll play in the party’s future. The guessing here is not much.
Obama into the Lion’s Den
Safely tucked away in his multi-vehicle motorcade, President Barack Obama sped by our office window this week on his way to meet Republican members of the House of Representatives, one of several meetings with lawmakers from both parties and both sides of Capitol Hill. It’s the latest step in a charm offensive that the president hopes will make some sort of grand bargain on the budget more than just a pipedream.
Even as Mr. Obama met with Republicans on the Hill, congressional budget leaders from both parties released opposing plans aimed at cutting the budget deficit. The House Republican plan put forward by Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan would balance the budget in 10 years by cutting deeply into government spending and reworking key entitlement programs like Medicare. Ryan is chairman of the House Budget Committee.
His counterpart in the Senate, Patty Murray of Washington, unveiled a Democratic Party budget plan that would not balance the budget anytime soon, but would raise taxes by almost $1 trillion over the next decade. The Democratic plan would also protect entitlement programs from sweeping changes and the added revenue from tax hikes would be used to ease some of the sequester budget cuts already in effect. President Obama is expected to release his own budget proposal in early April.
Coming Together or Pulling Apart?
The question is do these competing budget plans help or hurt the effort to eventually get to a “grand bargain” on the budget that would end the month-to-month political wrangling in Washington. Political experts are split.
On one hand, both parties need to get out their best budget shots to the public at large — what they would do in a perfect world. It’s important for both parties to establish their core principles and values through budget priorities to keep faith with their base voters.
On the other hand, there are hopes that once each side has put out its budget plan that there would be some movement toward a compromise in the middle. So far, though, there hasn’t been too much of that.
President Obama began his outreach earlier in the month by having dinner with several Senate Republicans. The readout from that confab was generally positive, at least in terms of tone. The president old ABC News that his subsequent trips to the Capitol to meet with lawmakers were part of an effort to find what he called a “common-sense caucus.” It could also help his approval ratings, which have been down in recent polls. The public generally wants the president and Congress to work together to get things done.
But a key question is whether Mr. Obama’s opening to Republicans can be sustained now that both sides have issued vastly different budget plans that neatly encapsulate their clashing world views on the role of government.
There would seem to be some notable non-starters in the two competing budget plans. The Ryan plan assumes the repeal of the president’s landmark health care reform law, which seems highly unlikely given the president’s re-election and Democratic control of the Senate. On the other hand, the Democratic Senate plan to raise $1 trillion in new tax revenue would seem to be, in that classic budget phrase, “dead on arrival” as far as Republicans are concerned.
Many of the comments from Republicans in the wake of the president’s so-called “charm offensive” were mildly positive, though not necessarily suggestive that a big agreement on the budget was anywhere near. Some Republicans grumbled that it didn’t seem to them that the president was willing to take bold steps necessary to rein in entitlement costs.
But Democrats countered that a large number of conservative Republicans have now ruled out any more tax increases as part of a big deal, fearing they would be challenged by a conservative candidate in a Republican primary election.
So yes, both sides are talking and that’s a good thing. But the early signs are that for the moment, both sides appear to be willing to go only so far in search of a big budget deal.
Whether and how that dynamic might change remains to be seen. But time is of the essence. The closer we get to the 2014 congressional election cycle, the less likely it will be for both sides to agree on something that can pass both houses of Congress.