The heirs to Ronald Reagan's conservative legacy gathered Thursday in a hotel ballroom to exchange variations on the dominant theme in today's Republican politics: It is evening in America.
"The Germans are buying the New York Stock Exchange," announced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "The U.S. is becoming the laughing stock of the world," exhorted reality television star Donald Trump. It's "a national reckoning unlike any I have seen in my lifetime," explained former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Rick Santorum, a one-time Pennsylvania senator preparing a run for president, rounded out the collective cry of Cassandra by announcing that the nation was being run by a heretic. "This is someone who doesn't believe in truth and evil in America," he said of President Obama.
For decades, the Conservative Political Action Conference has been a bellwether of conservative thought. And the first day of this year's event, with record attendance boosted by ever multiplying scores of college students, did not disappoint. For journalists looking to crack the code on the right's narrative for the 2012 election cycle, it was evident in nearly every speech delivered in the main ballroom.
The next election, different speakers argued in different ways, would not just determine the occupant of the Oval Office, but the very survival of the country as a global superpower. "This is a crossroads of American history. This is a moment," said Santorum. "Were you there? Did you see it? Did you understand what was at stake?"
As can be expected, much of the blame for America's precipitous state was laid at the feet of Obama and the Democratic agenda, which Rumsfeld poetically described as "the gentle despotism of big government." Several speakers accused Obama of not believing in the exceptionalism of America, or understanding American power, and therefore precipitating the country's declining influence. Downstairs, in the exhibit hall, supporters of Mitt Romney distributed stickers that read only, "Believe In America," as if his Democratic opponents did not.
But while the blame was squarely focused on Obama, the roots of the discontent stretched back far further than Obama's relatively recent arrival on the scene. Trump, who delivered the most rousing speech of the day, blamed the OPEC cartel of foreign oil producing states that has been operating since 1960. Gingrich spoke of a national energy policy that had been dysfunctional since the 1970s. Several speakers carped about the rising national debt and growing federal spending, a trend that had unmistakably begun under in the early 2000s, when Republicans controlled the levers of federal power.
In the 2006 and 2008 elections, the steady erosion of America's economic status and its international standing fueled Democratic gains, and confounded regular attendees of CPAC, who would grumble about the mismanagement of the Bush Administration and the big spending of the Republican leadership. But the loss of elective office since then has been liberating for conservatives. They have found a common message: Only a Republican can restore America to greatness again.
The question of just who would carry that flag remains wide open. On Thursday, three potential candidates for president spoke, and the one who got the best response was Trump, a condo developer and casino owner, who is perhaps best known for his line of Chinese-made silk ties and a network television reality show that briefly revived the career of Bret Michaels, the former lead singer of a band called Poison. In contrast to Trump's straight-talking bluster, Gingrich's address veered from policy lecture to media criticism, without breaking any new ground. Santorum delivered his nascent stump speech to a partially empty hall, struggling to connect as he mixed a religious message"America belongs to God"with a muddled criticism of Obama. "This time he sides with the protesters," Santorum said of Obama's approach to the Egyptian crises. "Now I am not saying we should not side with the protesters."
On Friday and Saturday, several more potential candidates are expected to speak, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. Several other potential candidates, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have chosen to skip the event, while Jon Huntsman, a dark horse in the race, continues to work as ambassador to China for the Obama Administration.
In contrast to the last presidential cycle, there was little evidence that the campaign for president had begun. At the 2007 CPAC conference, most of the Republican field had already established full-fledged campaigns, and their representatives battled it out on the floor of the conference. This year, however, Flip, the talking dolphin who opposed Mitt Romney for his changing positions, did not make an appearance. "It's the most wide open since 1964," said Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, who now runs the Faith and Freedom Coalition, of the 2012 campaign. "We have traditionally been royalists," Reed continued, pointing out the pattern of early Republican frontrunners that have gone on to win the nomination. "Now you are going to see a real fight."
He spoke in the downstairs exhibition hall, where a potpourri of conservative interest groups had set up booths to hock their individual issues. The Poker Players Alliance, which is pushing to legalize online gambling, was positioned between GOProud, a gay rights group, and the John Birch Society. At one table, a man sold a Dr. Suess knock off that depicted President Obama in a fez as the Cat In The Hat, with pundit Glenn Beck as the story's goldfish.
Moving through the booths were the activists who hope to topple Obama in 21 months. It was a cause they seemed to relish, even if they did not have a single leader to guide them. After all, nothing less than the fate of America was at stake.