Thursday, March 14, 2013

Grading CPAC, day 1

Since this site is focused on 2016, I'm just handing out grades for the potential '16 candidates and not for people like that guy who made the utterly baffling joke about Obama not being a good logger.

So that means, we'll give grades for Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Rick Perry.

As a way of introduction, for weeks now, there's been buzz about a growing divide between the Marco Rubio vs. Rand Paul wing of the Republican party.

Basically, it goes like this.

Rubio is the new voice of old thinking. He stands with neo-conservatives, social conservatives, and traditional economic conservatives.

Meanwhile, Rand is the new voice of new thinking: He's pushing the GOP toward isolationism, states rights on a host of social issues, and greater civil liberties at the expense of more civil protection.

Well, CPAC's planners must have liked the contrast, and helpfully, put Rubio and Rand back-to-back on its program today to see whether you like regular fries or curly fries.

Here goes.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio

If you're a public figure and are going to drink water and sweat on TV, it's probably best if you're an athlete or a hammerhead shark.

Rubio, most def, does have issues with dry mouth and forehead sweating, and that, unfortunately, seems to matter to quite a few people, and he started noticeably sweating near the end of his speech.

But if the gods gave Rubio hydration issues to keep him humble, they also blessed him with remarkable oratory that was orating itself up and down the CPAC halls for about fifteen minutes.

For much of the speech, he took aim at Mitt Romney and his "47%" comments without literally saying, "I am taking aim at Mitt Romney and his 47% comments."

A representative passage:

"Our people have not changed -- the vast majority of the American people are hardworking taxpayers who take responsibility for their families, go to work every day, pay their mortgage on time.... it's the world around us that has changed, and this has had an impact on our people."

Rubio's fundamental message was that America hasn't irrevocably changed, that her people still want the things your grandparents and their parents wanted. His message was optimistic, it was broad, sometimes it wasn't very realistic, but always it was inspiring.

I differ with Rubio in that I think America has become a more liberal country and is now center-left, but if anyone can nudge America toward the center-right again, it might be Rubio.

Rubio isn't a guy who's going to stun you with new ideas; he's a guy who's going to wow you with the timeless ones.

Suddenly, that Patek Philippe watch isn't just your grandfather's; it's history's, or as the famous ad puts it: "You merely take care of it for the next generation."

And in Rubio's final sentence, he both obviated the need for a radically transformed GOP and somehow made it still sound transformative.

"We don't need a new idea. The new idea is called America, and it still works."

He then moved from the "I'm not Romney" portion of the speech to the next "I'm not Romney" portion, which was a stirring defense of his conservative cred on social issues. 

He didn't just take on abortion, he challenged those who embrace the science behind climate change, but deny science has much to say about abortion.

"The people who are actually close-minded in American politics are the people who love to preach about the certainty of science in regards to our climate but ignore the absolute fact that science has proven that life begins at conception."

Then he touched on same-sex marriage.

"Just because I believe states have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot."

Two things.

First, what made the moment particularly powerful is that he wasn't just affirming a belief in his conception of marriage, but he was also simultaneously pushing back against the inevitable scorn from the Left by saying, no, what I just said doesn't make me a bigot.

In other words, he was playing offense and defense (Some teams play one; others play both, and the Kansas City Chiefs play neither).

Second, note that VERY important comment about states having the right to define marriage.

The James Dobsons of the world would say that DOMA is about letting states have the right, but, hey, why not genuinely take Rubio at his word? That sentence make it sound as though he's ready to give federalism on gay marriage a try.

After that, he moved onto the next "I'm not Romney" portion of his speech, wherein he talked about the growing problem of student debt and even flashed a little debt of his own ($100K, which he finally paid off last year).

Finally, he took it full circle when he rang up some more rhetorical cash.

"If you look at our government, you have a right to be pessimistic. But here's the good news. Our government has never been America.... America has always been our people."


Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul

"I was told I had 10 measly minutes", the curly-headed one said as he held up binders in a reference to his filibuster.

It wouldn't be his last hat-tip to his filibuster. In fact, his filibuster showed up everywhere. In every nook and every cranny, near every book and every granny. It's like Shel Silverstein doing Rand Paul doing the filibuster.

Rand took everyone to Constitution-Ville, as any good Paul should do. His address was far more about executive power and limits and checks and balances than Rubio's feel-good, dream-big moment.

"No one person gets to decide the law, no one person gets to decide your guilt or innocence.... my question was about whether presidential power has limits," he told the audience, referring again to his filibuster.

Even though they're both generally conservative, Rand's philosophy is much more technical than Rubio's, which is very blood-and-flesh, seed of life, these are the hands that built America-ish.

They might arrive at many of the same conclusions, but they get there very differently. Rand sees conservatism in natural law, Rubio feels it in his heart. Neither is necessarily better than the other.

That beings said, some of their most profound differences emerged, particularly when Rand demanded that the U.S. not send "one penny more to countries that are burning our flags."

The line got a HUGE response, which was telling about the audience and the current GOP, but... really? No pennies for countries burning our flags?

How do you define "countries that are burning our flags"?

Does he mean state-sanctioned flag burnings? Does he mean countries with some radicals who burn our flags, but not at the behest of the government? Or does he just mean countries where America isn't popular?

That's the problem with Paul -- he talks a very good isolationist game, but is always weak on operationalizing it. He's against interventionism, except when he's for it.

The rest of the speech was fairly pedestrian -- especially considering it came with such high expectations.

To wit: If you're a conservative trying to redefine your party's message, and you get 15 minutes at CPAC, is this really one of your lines?

"What we need to do is to keep more money in the pockets of those who earned it."

That sounds like the white noise Sean Hannity uses to put himself to sleep every night; not a new message from a transformational figure.

Rand then moved to some more rhetorical innovation.

"The Republican party has to change by going forward to classical timeless ideas enshrined in our constitution.... it's time for us to revive Reagan's law. For liberty to expand, government must shrink."

Never heard a Republican say that before.


"For the economy to grow, government must get out of the way."

Again, the white noise Sean Hannity uses to keep himself asleep at night.

Paul's only truly memorable moment came when he said:

"The GOP of old has grown stale, and moss-covered. I don't think we need to name any names, do we?"

It was clear he was talking about McCain and Graham, and the most telling thing of the moment was the audience's reaction which was swift and overwhelmingly positive.

Regardless, Rand's speech looked flat on television (I wasn't there, and people in the hall said it was better), and only saved from yawns by the fact that it was delivered by the filibuster guy.


Texas Gov. Rick Perry

I think the most common line on Twitter today was something like this: Are we sure Rick Perry isn't still taking back medication? 

Did he say GDVP? Did he say "benign genlect" instead of "benign neglect?"

By the way, his problem -- both in the primary and in this CPAC address --  is that when he pauses before a word, you think he's pausing because he wants to impress a point on you, but instead the word that comes out is something like "with" or "for" or any number of prepositions.

Suddenly, it hits you: He's not pausing for dramatic effect; he just can't figure out which preposition to use.

The first 2/3 of the address was a boring, train wreck of a speech (I'm not sure how you can be a train wreck and boring at the same time).

It only got interesting and noteworthy when he chided some of his fellow Republican governors for caving on Medicaid Expansion.

"Unfortunately, some of our friends and allies in the conservative movement has folded in the face of Federal bribery and mounting pressure from special interests. They tell us to take the money.... because it's free, but there is nothing free. There's nothing free that comes from Washington."

But beyond that? Hungry Shark Evolution time!

Screencap, via

Rick Perry was pseudo-drafted into running for president in 2012. My guess is that this speech was designed to keep people from drafting him to run for president again.