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CPAC speakers plow familiar ground

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News analysis

CPAC speakers plow familiar ground

No surprises, except from Trump

  • Trump

Washington, D.C. — There were more similarities than differences between speeches given by headline speakers at the first day of CPAC, the annual conclave of conservatives sponsored by the American Conservative Union. Each of the famous names – including Rep. Michele Bachmann, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Rand Paul, and Donald Trump (whose appearance was announced just that morning) gave essentially the same speech.

Each speech given by Thursday's big names was within two minutes of 15, except for Bachmann's which lasted closer to 30. All the lesser known speakers, like Rep. Alan West and Sen. Ron Johnson simply gave brief, campaign-style speeches.

Every speaker was sure to include a condemnation of "Obamacare." Health reform is easily the biggest CPAC "stem-winder" issue. It dominates the entire proceeding. Any mention of repeal guaranteed healthy applause and everyone took advantage. Everyone also condemned the federal deficit and most took credit for elevating it as an issue, though probably only Rand Paul can truly stake such a claim.

All the leading speakers made sure to claim that President Obama's policies were responsible for unemployment, calling them "job-killing" (Bachmann and Paul) or "job-destroying" (Bachmann) or "Obama's war on jobs and opportunity" (McConnell).

With the exception of health reform (which begins in 2014) only McConnell named any specific policy as responsible for continuing high unemployment. He cited "nationalizing the student loan business" and "running car companies."

Regarding student loans, Congress changed the program to lend government money directly instead of through a private intermediary. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the change will save $61 billion and underwrite $40 billion of additional student loans. As to the auto bailouts, The Economist says that President Obama is actually owed an apology by those who called him a socialist. Most of the loan money has been paid back with interest.

McConnell's criticisms were also emblematic of another commonality of the headliner speeches – each seemed to re-litigate settled issues. No elected official broke any new ground or offered any new policy idea.

All four of the headliners offered some variation of the idea of "American Exceptionalism," a popular conservative meme which sees Americans as a sort of "chosen people." However, definitions of the phrase varied.

Leader McConnell said that it meant we are "the indispensible nation." He added, "We stand for American Exceptionalism. We will never make apologies for any of it." Senator Paul offered that it meant America's "unique pursuit of freedom." Bachmann just treated as if it were obvious. Donald Trump took a different direction, calling the U.S. "the laughingstock of the world."

The final point common to all speakers was their call to defeat President Obama in 2012. Though each spared no disdain for the president, Donald Trump had a uniquely clever take on the issue, one sure to appeal to fiscal conservatives as well as "birthers." Trump described Obama as someone no one at Harvard knew existed.

"Our current president came out of nowhere. The people he went to school with didn't know him. Nobody knew who the hell he was." The description sounds farfetched in light of Obama being chosen as editor of Harvard's most prestigious publication, Harvard Law Review. Still, some people in the crowd reacted, yelling out the word "Muslim."

In a sign of changing times, Donald Trump was one of only a handful of speakers to explicitly mention a pro-life viewpoint.

Trump also caused the biggest ruckus of the day. After claiming he is not running (he'll "decide by June") Trump went on to describe all the other candidates as "unqualified."

Then he began to explain his view of a qualified candidate. At each mention of a characteristic, the audience yelled out "Ron Paul," getting louder and adding more voices each time. Finally, Trump seemed to realize he was losing his point and said, "I hate to tell you, but Ron Paul cannot get elected."

The assertion drew extended, deafening boos from most of the room, but Trump gamely soldiered on. (Paul won the CPAC straw poll last year and looks to be a favorite again this year.)

Trump later won back the crowd when he blamed China, Mexico and OPEC for U.S. economic woes. It was one of the most interesting arguments in a day having few original ones.

He sees our economic setbacks as simply a negotiating deficiency. Trump's idea is that other nations are robbing us because we don't have strong leaders. After saying, ""I have fairly but intelligently earned billions of dollars," Trump went on to say that, to narrow the deficit, he would "Raise the taxes on some of these countries that are taking advantage of the United States." It is unclear how he might accomplish this since nations do not pay taxes to other nations.

But he wasn't done there. He noted gas prices are rising and assured the audience ("trust me") that they would be eight dollars a gallon by next year. This is, he said, "because we have nobody that calls OPEC and says, 'That price better get lower. And it better get lower now.'"

By then, reporters in the press gallery were giggly and wide-eyed.

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

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