CPAC 2015 – There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch But There Is Free Swag

CPAC 2015 – There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch But There Is Free Swag

National Harbor, MD — As this past weekend drew to a close, so did CPAC, the largest gathering of conservative activists in the nation, but between the booing of Jeb Bush, panelists faking heart attacks on stage, and a man dressed from the 18th century, the conference is far from ordinary. And there was free stuff. Oh, was there free stuff.

Participants vote in the famous CPAC straw poll.
Participants vote in the famous CPAC straw poll.

CPAC, more formally known as The Conservative Political Action Conference, is the annual conference offering conservative candidates, supporters, and activists an opportunity to come together to network and prepare for future election cycles. With over 10,000 participants, this American Conservative Union sponsored event draws activists from all stripes and colors. Yet the most significant aspect of CPAC is perhaps not its networking capabilities, but its famous presidential preference straw poll, acting as one of the earliest events to usher in the election season.

Expect the day to be dominated by free speech and free gifts. Speeches are a vital cornerstone of the CPAC experience, starting early in the morning and continuing into the evening. Conservative, and sometimes not so conservative, icons make up the schedule, with some speaking alone and others as part of a larger panel. Popular topics of the conference included the dangers of common core, promoting a strong military presence, ending the IRS, and stopping “Obamacare”, though many disagreed on a number of issues. Speakers raging from England’s United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage to Hewitt Packard CEO Carly Fiorina take the stage, offering attendees an opportunity to hear from people they would otherwise never have the chance.

Donald Trump addresses CPAC.
Donald Trump addresses CPAC.

But if the large halls aren’t your scene, off to the side are smaller, more intimate rooms, giving attendees an opportunity to hear other speakers discuss specific issues and pet projects. Panelists range from former New Mexico Governor and 2012 Libertarian Party Presidential candidate Gary Johnson to former Speaker and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, and unlike some of those in the main hall, discussion can get even fierier, depending on who’s getting to ask the questions.

Downstairs is “The Hub”, the name given to the loft like room directly beneath the speaking halls. The Hub serves as a “farmer’s market” of conservative political ideology, with booths advocating for a plethora of hot button issues and an almost endless supply of free swag.  Issues are as diverse and varied as the crowd in attendance, and as it often goes with such diversity, booths tend to overlap in message as they try to redefine conservatism.

One such group was the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, or informally the TFP. A representative of the TFP explained that they are a lay Catholic men’s organization who have been sponsors of CPAC for “over 20 years”, and are seeking to defend traditional marriage, private property and enterprise, and Christ’s honor. Taking a moment from gathering signatures for a worldwide petition to encourage Pope Francis to take more conservative positions in the Catholic Church, he explained that even in the ever-increasing social libertarian CPAC crowd “it has been a good turnout [and] we’ve had a pretty supportive crowd.”

Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum talks to supporters in The Hub.
Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) talks to supporters in The Hub.

The Our America Initiative, an organization started by fmr. Governor Gary Johnson, was another group in attendance, and would be one seen as contrary to the TFP. While many preach for general conservative issues, or the restoration of the Republican Party, Our America’s booth is filled with Libertarian Party paraphernalia, bumper stickers, and quite a few pictures of Johnson’s face. Speaking with members of the booth, they expressed a skepticism of the de facto liberty movement head, Rand Paul, the importance of libertarianizing social issues, as well as the necessity of ballot access reform.

You might think you’ve seen it all, but the party doesn’t stop when the speakers leave for the day. Outside of the Gaylord Convention Center, attendees young and old flock to the many bars, clubs, and restaurants to mingle. CPAC has become progressively younger throughout the years, so the club scene has become increasingly more popular, with attendees in jackets thrown over club attire being something appearing on the internet’s comical “CPAC bingo sheets” in the past.

The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property is one of many groups that have booths in The Hub.
The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property is one of many groups that have booths in The Hub.

But conservative activists aren’t the only ones showing up at night anymore. Sometimes so do the candidates, as was seen with Kentucky Senator, and possible presidential hopeful, Rand Paul, who came out to conduct an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity at a bar down the street from the convention center. Hannity, picking up on the scene, even jokingly said that he would open a tab and “fireballs were on him.”

As it goes, with such a large and diverse breed of activists now attending CPAC, emotions can run high. Most of the time, such instances are minor and just the occasional firebrand in the panel audience or the main hallway, but sometimes they get noticed, such as when Rand Paul’s supporters conducted a mass walk out on Jeb Bush during his speech. For the most part, things remain relatively calm and activists instead fight it out with who has the most colorful team pride. Sometimes, supporters give the word “colorful” a whole new meaning.

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) takes questions from Sean Hannity at Bobby McKey's Dueling Piano Bar.
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) takes questions from Sean Hannity at Bobby McKey’s Dueling Piano Bar.

Abigail, a bubbly young girl with bright purple tips in her hair, represents some of the diversity that can be seen in attendance at CPAC. “Rand is the reason I’m here”, she said, proudly sporting the equally bright “Stand With Rand” shirt associated with his supporters. “He’s my choice candidate because he’s a real supporter of the Constitution. No other candidate seems that genuine.”

In contrast to Abigail, Ryan, a young man with a large sticker on his jacket reading “Jeb! 2016” sees things a little differently. When asked why he thinks Jeb is a decent candidate, Ryan actually referenced his positions, something putting him at odds with a lot of his peers, saying “It’s admirable that he has differing position and is not following talking points. He has flexibility [and] an independent streak.”

When asked about comparing him to his brother, Ryan was quick to dismiss any concerns. “He’s more conservative than [his brother]”, adding “look at his record as Governor of Florida”.

Newt Gingrich speaks in one of the smaller Potomac rooms.
Newt Gingrich speaks in one of the smaller Potomac rooms.

As for why others continue to attack Jeb Bush, Ryan expressed little concern. “There’s a candidate overload right now, and Jeb is the frontrunner, so it’s expected that he will be a target of everyone”, he explained.
Ben, a journalism student attending a Newt Gingrich panel, was another interesting stripe of activist in attendance. When asked which candidates he supported, Ben said he was a fan of both Rand Paul and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the latter being someone who has been heavily criticized for his stances in the party. When asked how he could be a fan of both candidates, he cited Paul’s sensitivities to the people of Westchester County, Yonkers, the Bronx, and other such locations.

“I’m Jewish and where I’m from there’s a lot of racial profiling”, Ben said. [Paul] is in touch with reality, [and] goes where poor people are and where they need to be helped.”

Regarding Christie, Ben explained “I support Christie on everything but cannabis. He’s on the same page [as Paul], but he’s a little too afraid to take on the establishment”

An enthusiastic supporter of straw poll victor Rand Paul holds a sign during his speech to CPAC.
An enthusiastic supporter of straw poll victor Rand Paul holds a sign during his speech to CPAC.

Ben also expressed favor towards individuals like Newt Gingrich, citing intelligence and respect as important qualifiers in a commander-in-chief.
Like all things though, CPAC had to come to an end, with Rand Paul winning the straw poll for the third year in a row, though with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker surging to a strong second. Conservatives left the conference feeling invigorated to stake their claims in the 2016 cycle. If there’s one thing that could be taken from the conference however, is that there remains an ideological battle for the soul of the conservative movement, and with the ever-changing demographics of the conservative movement in America, one that could possibly last for years to come.

Sanders in ’16?

Sanders in ’16?

Vermont’s self-identified “democratic socialist” Senator announced in Iowa on Sunday that he’s considering seeking the seat of the bully pulpit. Such a move would be the first time since the 1920 campaign of Eugene V. Debs where an openly socialist candidate with elected experience would have pitched a bid to pursue the highest office in America.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at The New Populism Conference.
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at The New Populism Conference.

The infamous Vermont firebrand, famous for going after the Koch Brothers, Wall Street, and the “billionaire class”, is now serving his 2nd term in the Senate. Originally an outspoken agitator for socialism and active third party member, he started off under the small Liberty Union party label, a socialist party based out of Vermont, where he mounted a number of runs for statewide office in the 70s with minimal success. At the turn of the decade, he absolved himself of party labels set his sights on the mayoralty of Burlington. There he was elected, numerous times, and proceeded to work his way through the ranks, becoming the state’s lone congressman, and later one of its two senators.

While Hillary Clinton has yet to officially declare her candidacy for the Presidency, the tea leaves read that she’s a candidate in every aspect except name only. To date, no serious candidate has materialized to challenge the would be political heavyweight, with many seeing 2016 as “her time” to be the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer. However, a sizable contingency remains skeptical of her ability to deliver the mantle of commander-in-chief to the Democratic Party, as well as a general concern with policies she would enact once in office, leaving ample room for a candidate like Sanders to make a splash.

As a Democrat, early polling shows Sanders as a long-shot, but his placement could very easily change. With a recent dissatisfaction with Clinton, a general unease with policies in the Obama administration, and an increasing disdain for both parties in Washington, he could very well play a role similar to that of Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012, or Howard Dean in 2004, and directly appeal to those disenfranchised with the current political system. Furthermore, those who feel Clinton isn’t progressive enough could find a home in a candidate Sanders, which could antagonize Clinton up until the convention.

For Bernie, he’s looking to do much more than just shake up the race- he’s looking to win. Last Sunday, at the “Politics on Tap” conference in Washington D.C., Sanders made it clear he’s looking to do more than be a spoiler. “If I run, I will run to win”, he said. Such a statement implies that Sanders is seriously looking to run within the constructs of the Democratic Party, and such a decision would definitely not be without merit.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in support of a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in support of a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

While various news reports will continue to claim that Sanders could mount a bid as a Democrat, an independent, or both, the truth of the matter is it’s not really that simple. The American political system is a complex puzzle, constructed from the various states and their individual laws governing the electoral system. As a result, Sanders would be forced to decide between one of the two options if he aims to make a realistic attempt, as each state has different thresholds for what it takes to be on the November ballot, and some incorporate “sore loser” laws. For example, Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico and the Libertarian Party’s 2012 nominee for president, was kept off of the ballot in Michigan, as he appeared on it as a candidate for the Republican presidential primary earlier in that year.

To further complicate issues, America hasn’t had an independent president since the days of Washington, and there’s a legitimate reason for this. For an independent Sanders, he would start off with the immediate disadvantage of having to organize an effective electoral apparatus in each state, and would most likely have to rely purely on grassroots support. Such problems have plagued numerous candidates in the past, bogging them down with legal battles and signature petitions. An independent Sanders could utilize preexisting ballot lines, such as those of the Peace and Freedom Party, Socialist Party, or Green Party, but, once again, it ultimately comes down to the decision of such individual state parties.

Photo originally from the the Huffington Post.
Photo originally from the the Huffington Post.

It is unclear of the ultimate extent that an independent Sanders would have on the November race, but it’s accepted that a Sanders run would be a challenge from the left, which would easily siphon hard numbers and funding from Clinton, assuming she’s the Democratic nominee. Furthermore, a Sanders challenge could possibly force Clinton to make a leftward shift on her positions, which could shake her appeal to more independent voters.

This also isn’t the first time that Sanders has flirted with the idea of running for President. Earlier this year, Sanders proposed the notion that he was mulling a run, and was met with harsh criticism from another third party icon of the American left. Ralph Nader, five time presidential candidate and face of American leftist politics, blasted Sanders on his perceived lack of correspondence and unwillingness to work with him in encouraging progressive policies, calling him a “lone ranger”.

In all of Sander’s ambiguity, it can be hard to pin down what he’s ultimately going to do, but what is for certain is that regardless of the path he takes, he’s going to be the first shake-up of many on the road to 2016.