The most well-received remarks at this year’s CPAC were indubitably Rand Paul’s, who was likely test driving his Republican National Convention nominee acceptance speech. Barely trailing him in cheers, applause and audience size was Dr. Ben Carson. Carson is known as one of the most accomplished physicians of his time, but is building momentum as a rising star among conservatives. Hotel room keys and the shuttles to Union Station are adorned with Carson’s face, next to slogans endorsing him for president in 2016. During his speech, enthusiasts held up signs that read, “Run, Ben, run!” and the ballroom’s sudden swelled in size from onlookers and supporters. Carson’s relaxed mannerisms and tightly focused speech make him a natural, if unlikely, politician, and his prodigious career in medicine certainly qualifies him to discuss health care policy. But President? CPAC has had no shortage of eyebrow-raising moments, but that is the most unconventional one yet. Though Republicans once nominated a former Hollywood actor who went on to be a two-term president, so anything is possible.
Dr. Carson hit his talking points with airstrike precision, to the delight of his audience, who punctuated nearly every point he made with an ovation. Carson disparaged political correctness, likely a nod to the social conservatives who have been feeling that their place in public discourse is increasingly restricted as of late. And then, predictably, he launched into his tirade against Obamacare. And that was precisely when he lost anyone with a level head who has been following Carson’s ascendancy with interest.
Carson referenced—and defended—his claim that Obamacare is the worst thing to happen to this society since slavery, calling anyone who believes that he equated the two institutions a “dummy”. Aside from that claim being patently false—there were a number of things that were nearly as bad as slavery, but none so awful as slavery itself—it is an irresponsible claim to make as a physician. Doctors are trusted to be objective and rely on facts to make decisions on courses of treatment. The fact that Carson was willing to wade into the political fray, making claims that can be easily misconstrued is alarming. Anyone hoping that Carson would bring some balance and perspective to the blaring rhetoric from CPAC this weekend was in for a disappointment.
Carson’s best-selling books—the nonpolitical ones—are nothing like his speeches, and the vast disparity between the two personas is unsettling. The pediatric neurosurgeon whose memoirs I read as a child emphasized self-reliance, hard work, and trust in Providence to achieve the impossible. The speaker today was a speech away from running for office on fearmongering and repealing Obamacare. I was hoping to see more of the man I trusted to perform a complex operation instead of a pedantic speaker that validated the borderline irrational whims of CPAC attendees.
This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference has had something of a deflated feeling floating about it. The crowds are smaller, the panels are fewer, and the entire enterprise has a sneaking feeling of being scrimped on. For Rand Paul, however, CPAC was bigger and better than ever.
At last year’s conference, Paul was freshly coming off of his launch into the full national spotlight thanks to a filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to the CIA in protest of Justice Department equivocating on executive domestic droning authority. Yet for all the positive attention he received from that filibuster, Paul was still treading softly on the Republican political ground. Libertarian politics had not been overly welcome in the wider GOP, especially after a decade of Bush II foreign policy. So he took to the 2013 stage with a rock star’s reception, complete with Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” but deployed a sophisticated rhetorical strategy intended to make libertarianism more comfortable for conservative ears.
What a difference a year makes.
When Paul arrived behind the podium Friday night, he walked and talked with the assurance of a man confident in his base of support, and spoke more to rally the faithful than sell the skeptical. From the beginning, Paul centered his remarks around liberty, telling the audience he was not calling for more Republicans, but more “friends of liberty.” And where last year’s speech was essentially grounded, a friendly pitch to make common cause, Paul deployed much loftier rhetoric, interspersing (as he often has) quotations and references to classic thinkers like Madison and Montesquieu in his rousing call to arms. The running theme was the “great battle” coming, and an urging to not be “lemmings” rushing towards destruction, but rather men who would defend their inalienable rights.
Paul castigated a progressive majoritarianism run amok, whose free-floating definition of legitimacy puts all minorities at risk, whether the racial minorities persecuted in generations past, or minorities of ideas at risk in the present day. He made frequent reference to his fight against the security state’s overreaches, and insisted upon the imperative importance of specific warrants and open, free trials instead of general warrants and secret determinations of guilt.
Finally, Paul closed on a muscular message rejecting the gradualist’s insistence on a hesitant program of changes, telling the CPAC crowd that their job is not to minimize liberty lost, but to maximize liberty.
Paul packed in the biggest crowds of the conference by far, and walked off to the adoring cries of his supporters, who then launched him once again to the top of CPAC’s straw poll, as he pulled in 31 percent of the vote. With the enthusiasm of Ron Paul’s supporters rallying behind a son of considerably more political savvy and talent, Rand Paul has more enthusiasm and organization than any other potential 2016 contender could hope to claim. It seems without question that Rand will be able to marshal more support than Ron.
It remains to be seen whether Paul will be able to ride a tide of libertarian enthusiasm all the way through the primary process on a platform of maximizing liberty, or whether Republicans will demand he make painful, perhaps too painful, concessions to the various constituencies of American conservatism.
Day two of CPAC was livelier than the first, perhaps auguring the required change the GOP needs to undertake to include demographics it has willfully neglected in time for the midterms and 2016. Instead of the soporific, self-congratulatory speeches saddled with the overused phrase, “America is the greatest country on Earth,” several panels raised issues that have significant impact on the future of both parties and the country. Leah Libresco summarized the panel debating Snowden’s actions, during which former intelligence officer and Governor of Virginia Jim Gilmore, who firmly believes Snowden is a traitor, went tête à tête with Snowden’s family attorney, Bruce Fein. Gilmore’s unequivocal statements drew angry responses from the crowd (upon hearing the officer’s remark about his knowledge of the Fourth Amendment, a heckler shouted, “You lie!”), and little else from the panel resulted aside from a passionate crossing of swords. Nonetheless, it was encouraging to see conservatives disagree on two legitimate points of view. Disagreement strengthens ideas, and willingness to listen to those within the party may translate into bipartisan collaboration down the road.
The criminal justice reform panel, though less heated, provided insight into the reality of non-violent first-time offenders. For crimes that are as trivial as selling non-weapon contraband on eBay are languishing in prison while state governments foot the bill. Governor of Texas Rick Perry elaborated on his effective management of the prison system in Texas: fewer inmates are incarcerated in Texas than in New York, and as a result, the state is spending less. “You want to see real conservative governance?” Governor Perry asked in a rare moment of eloquence. “Shut those prisons down. Save that money.” Indeed, the entire panel, including former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik, who served a short prison term himself, agreed that mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines were inefficient and branded too many offenders as felons, a title that would haunt them for the rest of their lives. For the first time at CPAC, there were practical, applicable solutions presented to address an unwieldy problem.
Finally, the panel titled “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Ever Get Along?” was perhaps the panel with most genuinely engaged participants at CPAC yet. The crux of the panel focused on religious liberty within the context of gay marriage. Does the state have the right to enforce a definition of marriage that goes against those who oppose it on moral grounds? Do the states have the right to define marriage? This is a tough question, and has two perspectives: an individual contract upheld by the state, and a state institution that individuals choose to participate in. 20-year old Alexander McCobin, cofounder and president of Students for Liberty, offered remarkably deft and insightful input referencing the 13th amendment and comparing gay marriage to the repeal of interracial marriage laws, an apt legal comparison that was immediately shot down. The panel was unable to find common ground to agree on, which may be the beginning of irreconcilable differences that could lead to a larger split within the conservative movement.
The GOP needs to take the golden opportunity the debacle of Obamacare has given them to reassess its stance on social issues them before getting back in the ring with the Democrats. If they don’t, they will continue to alienate libertarians with their out of touch messaging and stale ideas. Republicans must be willing to strike a compromise for the sake of its own viability in the next two rounds of elections.
Yesterday afternoon, a panel of conservative policy luminaries shared their ideas and expertise with a small group of reporters and conference attendees. They included John Allison, president and CEO of CATO, Carly Fiorina, chairman of the American Conservative Union Foundation, Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, and Lawson Bader from the Competitive Enterprise Institute. All had gleaming resumes and extensive experience, but were as passionate about their causes as recent college graduates, an encouraging sight in a party with a reputation for stagnation. Many professionals approaching the twilight of their careers have long ago shed their idealism for pragmatic cynicism and attend panels as an opportunity to make excuses for the ineptitude of their employers. This panel not only had innovative suggestions, but also discussed how to package new ideas in ways that the average voter can connect to. The presidential elections of 2008 and 2012 demonstrated the power of effective messaging on a grassroots level, and Republicans need to stop licking their wounds and come up with effective strategies.
Fiorina, who ran for public office in California, criticized Republicans for merely lambasting Obamacare while offering no viable alternative. Though she didn’t say it outright, her implicit conclusion was sobering: criticism paired with inaction was an irresponsible move, jeopardizing the already precarious health care system and costing Republicans valuable yardage on the political battlefield. One of the strategies Fiorina outlined to rectify this problem was communication with the poor—not merely buying a marketing strategy and hoping a critical mass of voters jump the fence, but taking the initiative to listen to the concerns of those struggling, and address them with dignity.
“People are poor not because they lack intellect. People are poor not because they lack ambition. People are poor not because they lack ambition,” Fiorina said. “The poor are poor because they lack the training and tools to tap their potential. They are poor because they lack the opportunities to fulfill their potential.”
This strategy and others were generally well received, but others wanted a clearer path from policies to votes. “These ideas are too intellectual,” one audience member said, visibly agitated. “I want to know how we’re going to win elections!”
He had a point. Talking the high art of policy is one thing: changing voters’ minds is quite another. I asked the panel how to bridge the gap between desperately needed policy recommendations and the heavy lifting of politics: phone banking, registering voters, proselytizing conservative principles. Fiorina’s solution was simple yet elegant: engage the average voter with empathy and respect. If Republicans can consistently demonstrate they are willing to do more that spout rhetoric on talk shows and from the pulpit and have genuine conversations, then perhaps Republicans can repair their reputations and regain their political prowess. Effectively communicated ideas translate into changed minds, which mean a strong turnout at the ballot box for the GOP. One can only hope that they start sooner than later.
If only Nixon could go to China, then, in the opinion of Grover Norquist, only conservatives can reform the criminal justice system.
The president of Americans for Tax Reform joined Texas Governor Rick Perry and former New York Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik to speak against mandatory minimum sentences and in favor of a criminal justice system more focused on rehabilitation than simple retribution. As Perry put it, “We’re not a soft on crime state, but I hope we get the reputation of being a smart on crime state.”
Kerik has experienced the criminal justice system from both sides, first as a cop, then as an inmate when he pled guilty to eight felony tax and false statement charges. He spent three years in jail, but was able to resume his life and his consultancy work when he was freed. That opportunity isn’t available to most felons, he pointed out. In his experience,
I was sentenced to three years, I knew men who were sentenced to a year and a day, but it’s not really a year and a day. A felony conviction is a life sentence. … You can’t punish people for life for making a mistake
Perry agreed with Kerik, saying that the mandatory minimums and other sentencing guidelines are “a really bad concept.” Long jail stays are costly to the state (which must feed and house criminals) and to the prisoners themselves (who spend more time adrift). He’s worked to shorten sentences where it’s safe to do so, and, as a result, Texas closed two prisons last August.
Perry may seem like an unlikely spokesman for criminal justice reform, having come under fire from reform groups like the Innocence Project, which has repeatedly petitioned to commute death penalty sentences without success. But Perry draws a distinction between death penalty or life without parole sentences, which are intended to sunder a criminal permanently from civil society, and shorter sentences, which, due to a dearth of rehabilitation programs, leave criminals unprepared for reintegration and force a de facto separation. Read More…
It might be a tradition that every year that GOProud is excluded as a CPAC sponsor, there will be a stealth panel on gay marriage.
In 2013, that slot was filled by the “A Rainbow on the Right: Growing the Coalition, Bringing Tolerance Out of the Closet” panel, which was the standing-room only panel thrown unofficially by the Competitive Enterprise Institute. This year, the gay rights debate happened on the mainstage at during “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Ever Get Along?”
The social conservatives tried to pitch their issues within a libertarian framework. Dr. Matt Spalding of the Allan P. Kirby Jr. Center at Hillsdale College acknowledged he differed with some of his fellow panelists on gay marriage, but said, referencing the conscience exemption carveouts, “We must have an agreement on religious liberty.”
Alexander McCobin of Students for Liberty fired back that libertarians were a little more worried about the religious liberty of couples and pastors in churches that conduct gay weddings, which are not acknowledged by their governments.
Spalding tried speaking in libertarian terms again, saying that, by default, conservatives should view any government institution with suspicion and that activists must address “whether the State has an obligation to recognize marriage at all.” In his view, traditional, one-man-one-woman marriage is “like gravity” a law external to the government, not written by it. Private contracts were a different matter, he said, but, for the public institution of marriage, the old tradition is “the only definition that makes sense.”
Throughout the panel, the social conservatives seemed to be soliciting the help of the libertarians, trying to speak their language, while the libertarians seemed indifferent to the idea of converting social conservatives. The libertarians answered the questions that were posed to them but made no parallel attempts to appeal to socially conservative tenets in order to attract their fellow panelists to libertarian positions.
The closest the libertarians came to trying to attract social conservatives, rather than just rebut them, was when Matt Welch of Reason argued that religion benefits from a free market in churches and contrasted the vibrancy of American churches with the weakening ones in France. However, the diversity of American sects is not necessarily attractive to social conservatives, any more than a strong environmentalist is pleased by a completely free market in cars, where some meet gas efficiency standards and some do not.
By the conclusion of the panel, the speakers agreed that social conservatives and libertarians could remain bedfellows, albeit strange ones. However, the tone and tactics on display reinforced Ross Douthat’s assertion that social conservatives are no longer negotiating as equals, but are working out the terms of a conditional surrender.
Douglas Hine wrote a wonderful piece at Aeon Magazine Thursday on information and its purpose:
Information is perhaps the rawest material in the process out of which we arrive at meaning: an undifferentiated stream of sense and nonsense in which we go fishing for facts. But the journey from information to meaning involves more than simply filtering the signal from the noise. It is an alchemical transformation, always surprising. It takes skill, time and effort, practice and patience. No matter how experienced we become, success cannot be guaranteed. In most human societies, there have been specialists in this skill, yet it can never be the monopoly of experts, for it is also a very basic, deeply human activity, essential to our survival. If boredom has become a sickness in modern societies, this is because the knack of finding meaning is harder to come by.
Hine is absolutely right: information is not just an end. It should, first and foremost, be a means to meaning. In all our interactions and work online, we must ask the question: “What is this for?” Additionally, we must consider whether such purpose would be better achieved via a different medium.
Take Facebook: we may use it to connect with friends. That’s our “for,” our purpose. But are there times when such connection is better suited to an email, phone call, or Skype conversation? Absolutely. Consider Twitter: it’s a great tool for searching the news. But why do we read the news—for meaningless data? No, we seek out news to give meaning and context to our lives. Are there times when Twitter prevents us from creating such meaning? Yes.
But obviously, determining that Facebook is for relationship and Twitter is for contextual growth brings up larger questions of meaning: What sort of friendships should we cultivate? Why should we cultivate friendship? What is the undergirding context of life? Why is news important in the first place? The deeper we plunge into questions of meaning, the further we progress from technological jargon toward philosophical questions. This is what Hine’s piece illustrates: “The journey from information to meaning involves more than simply filtering the signal from the noise. It is an alchemical transformation, always surprising. It takes skill, time and effort, practice and patience.”
In the late onslaught of encouragement to be more “mindful” in our digital and material lives, I’m still just wondering what mindfulness means—or should mean, at any rate. Read More…
John Solomon, the editor of the Washington Times, opened the privacy panel at CPAC with a clip of Edward Snowden, and the question, “Is he a traitor?”
Bruce Fein, a lawyer hired by Snowden’s family, replied, “Snowden is more of a patriot in Thomas Paine’s sense: someone who saves his country from his government.” Solomon stuck to the theme by asking Fein, “If he were a traitor, how would you defend him?” Fein pushed back on the appropriateness of these questions, saying it made no sense to let a discussion of laws Snowden broke eclipse the discussion of “the lawlessness of the government that he exposed.”
Fein added, that, if the government was so keen on the rule of law, it had no need of extradition to prosecute the National Director of Intelligence, James Clapper, for perjury before Congress. Arguably, he said, Clapper’s offense and the overreach he covered up was more serious since, “When the government becomes a lawbreaker, it invites every man and woman to become a law unto themselves.”
The fear of governmental lawlessness was a central concern for Charlie Kirk, the executive director of TurningPoint USA. After allegations that the IRS selectively audited conservative groups, he said, it was impossible to hear the president promise that these programs target “enemies foreign and domestic” and be confident that the kinds of groups and people in attendance at CPAC weren’t in danger of increased scrutiny as retribution.
Former Governor of Virginia Jim Gilmore, who served as a U.S. Army Counterintelligence Agent, said that Snowden’s disclosures put the country at unacceptable risk. When spy programs go too far, he said, they should be opposed through official channels, not subverted through broad, illegal disclosures. Gilmore had opposed the Total Information Awareness program, he pointed out, and he didn’t put anyone’s lives in danger to do it.
Fein replied that the secrecy of these NSA programs made them hard to oppose using conventional means. He pointed out that Rand Paul’s class action lawsuit against the NSA could never have been filed, but for Snowden’s leaks. Without access the specific details Snowden revealed, Paul’s lawsuit would have been thrown out as speculative.
As the audience weighed the tradeoff between liberty and security, Gilmore drew applause when he argued that intelligence operations are needed to defend national security. But when the moderator asked the attendees to raise their hands if they felt safer as the result of NSA surveillance, barely twenty or so hands were visible in a room packed more than two hundred strong. The lively crowd booed Gilmore when he called Snowden “a coward as well as a traitor,” and one attendee yelled “You lie!” when Gilmore said, “I understand pretty well what the Fourth Amendment is about.”
Fein spoke up against appeals to 9/11 and said that terrorist attack shouldn’t necessarily be answered by giving the government new powers. According to Fein, “People are saying the laws prior to 9/11 didn’t work, but that’s like saying that our laws against murder don’t work, since there are still murders.” Ultimately, he concluded, an increased risk of attacks is the price America pays for liberty.
Which of these text messages do you think would be more likely to get a conservative voter out to vote?
- Tomorrow is Election Day for Governor! Your Voting Record is Public. Be a good citizen, be a Voter!
- Will we let them beat us? Friendly reminder to Vote for Gov tmrw.
Adam Schaeffer, the Director of Research and the co-founder of Evolving Strategies, posed that question to CPAC attendees at a panel titled, “Vaccines vs. Leeches: Using Experiments to Win Hearts, Minds, and Elections.”
He and his team have sent out both these messages to randomized subsets of voters, and it turned out that the first message had a statistically insignificant effect on voting, but the second turned out to raise turnout by 6.8 percentage points.
Schaeffer and others (including the growing team at Para Bellum) are trying to use experiments to guide outreach, testing tiny variations in messaging to find big, unexpected advantages. The Democrats, relying on the research of Alan Gerber and Donald Green, have been using experiments to increase turnout and maximize fundraising, and have outpaced the GOP’s efforts.
Experiments have the power to subvert the conventional wisdom of campaigns, since it’s easy to try out a new idea cheaply. In 2012, the Obama team found that they could maximize the chance that one of their emails would be opened with a simple, enigmatic subject line: “Hey.” Small changes can make a big difference.
In Schaeffer’s experiments, timing was critical. Although the second message produced good results in the morning, when the same message was sent in the afternoon, the results were still significant, but they were significantly negative. Voters who were contacted in the late afternoon had their turnout rates drop by -11.4 percentage points as a result.
Testing so many hypothesis and checking the impact of messages on so many tiny subgroups leaves candidates vulnerable to being mislead by statistical artifacts. Most commonly used significance tests have a one in twenty chance of being false positives. When a campaign tests hundreds of variations, some results are bound to seem significant in pilot tests but fail to preform when they’re applied to the whole electorate. Read More…
“Off with Obamacare’s head!”
Such was the battle cry at the first day at CPAC, woven into nearly every speech, from Ted Cruz’s opening remarks at 9AM to the afternoon panels, regardless of whether the topic at hand was healthcare-related or not. Repeated demands were made to repeal or abolish Obamacare, each new iteration met with enthusiastic applause. Obamacare was criticized, attacked, and ridiculed with palpable glee. Speculation abounded about what would happen when Obamacare collapsed under its own weight. But few solutions were offered to replace a defenestrated Obamacare, which will cost Republicans with potential voters in the midterms, and in 2016.
CPAC is not known to be a breeding ground for policy initiatives, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t or shouldn’t be. Try as Republicans might, they have been thus far unsuccessful in their attempts to repeal Obamacare, leaving them with only one viable alternative: reform. In an environment like CPAC, words like reform aren’t “sticky” or in line with the talking points drilled into participants’ heads. But it is necessary, and may even be crucial to our health care system having a fighting chance of recovery. The health care system is in desperate need of overhaul, and Republicans should be leading the charge of how to fix it, not simply pointing out that Democrats broke it most recently. Senator John Barrasso from Wyoming, who had a career as an orthopedic surgeon before becoming a politician, stressed the additional burden placed on patients on having to travel farther to see doctors on a government mandated health insurance program. “Obamacare is patient, heal yourself,” Senator Barrasso said, indicating that it will be harder for seniors to get to hospitals and receive the consistent care they need. “They’re aren’t enough people to take care of the patients, and it’s actually making things worse.”
The silver lining to the grim prognosis is that there is, at last, Republican legislation surfacing. The Coburn, Burr, and Hatch plan is one example of such legislation. The bill takes practical measures to reform Medicaid by allowing patients to keep their own health care plan, reforms medical malpractice law, and allows patients to make their own choices when it comes to their own health care plans, as opposed to government regulations dictating what providers are available to them.
CPAC may be about hitting those talking points, but it can also be a meeting of minds and the beginning of substantive conversations that could put a derailed healthcare system back on track. Republicans need to act quickly, though. Time is running out, and the final phases of Obamacare implementation are on the horizon.