The Conservative Political Action Conference convened near Washington this week for activists to network, interest groups to promote their causes, and potential presidential candidates to speak to the grassroots.
Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Rand Paul, Scott Walker, Donald Trump, and Sarah Palin were all part of the lineup. Here’s how they did.
Style: Displayed the right balance between being “just Scott” and demonstrating a more presidential demeanor, complete with the jacket-less, rolled-up-shirtsleeves look and a fired-up focus on national security. Like several other speakers, abandoned the lectern for a comfortable stroll around the stage, finding a rhythm, adjusting his cadence to the rolling applause.
Substance: Avoided specifics on any federal programmatic ideas. Dodged a question on the minimum wage.
Best moment: Sold a version of the Wisconsin Miracle that was part “I’m a leader” and part “I can get things done” by touting his conservative bona fides and listing legislative accomplishments that included gun laws, voter ID efforts, and his fight against unions, garnering big cheers for each one.
Worst moment: Compared the task of defeating ISIS to his victory over labor unions in Wisconsin. Cast as a gaffe (or worse) by some conservatives (including the camps of at least one rival aspirant), Walker seemed unconcerned by the criticism afterward, telling Bloomberg Politics he was suggesting an example that would demonstrate his fortitude against difficult foes (a la Reagan and the air traffic controllers), rather than saying union members are like terrorists.
Overall: After more than a month in the national spotlight, Walker showed CPAC the self-assuredness and accessibility that has put him towards the top of the top tier. A better balance between talking about presidential issues and bragging on his Wisconsin record than in some past high-profile speeches. Looking more natural every appearance and getting more comfortable with large crowds and national scrutiny, he’s on the trajectory to find the sweet spot between rock star and rock solid.
Style: Intentionally the faster–talking, higher-energy version of Jeb, better suited for CPAC than a Manhattan fundraiser. At times seemed perhaps nervous and trying too hard to please. Chose to do an unusual standing Q. & A. with Sean Hannity. Ready from the get-go to pivot from being a Bush to being a conservative leader of the future.
Substance: No abundance of new policy ideas, but reminded the audience that he can talk fluidly about domestic policy, and showed off a keen familiarity with congressional proposals and the central questions on foreign policy.
Best moment: Aced a response on his record as at education reformer in the face of Common Core questions. It is an answer that will never win over some people and he’ll have to give again, but it suggests confidence despite the threat of a potentially mortal challenge.
Worst moment: His effort to parry hecklers with a joke about Miami weather fell flat.
Overall: Smiled and stayed on message when confronted by crowd heckling and booing, and by Hannity’s questions on immigration and Common Core. Had his team pack the room with cheering supporters ready to pump up the volume—otherwise it could have been a disaster. Instead he got to parry Hannity’s tough questions in a way that allowed Jeb to be Jeb, which is all his camp could have hoped for.
Style: Used a teleprompter to hit the flowery language of the liberty agenda his father touted to great effect. Shirt-sleeved and animated by the large crowd, packed with his natural supporters who cheered almost every applause line without hesitation.
Substance: Teased the upcoming release of a plan for the largest tax cut in American history. Called for term limits for judges.
Best moment: The reflexive cheering from supporters at almost everything he said (which sometimes counterintuitively produced awkward pauses) made it difficult to define a best moment.
Worst moment: Long and convoluted reply to a question about his foreign policy stance—a query for which he should have had a prepared out-of-the-park reply.
Overall: The speech cleverly blended libertarian favorites with more mainstream packaging. His frenzied supporters ensured that he received one of the best receptions of the conference no matter what–he could have read the Bowling Green tax assessor’s time sheets. The belle of CPAC, but not enough deviation from type to claim a larger piece of the Republican pie.
Style: Smoother, more textured, and more flavorful delivery of her prepared remarks than just a few weeks ago at the Iowa cattle call. Played the gender card (and contrasted with Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren) with near-perfect pitch for a center-right audience. Very comfortable invoking the totems of all three legs of the Reagan stool: national security, economics, and social issues. Room for improvement: Her jokes are still a bit hokey, forced, and impersonal.
Substance: Not one specific policy idea in her speech, or even in response to direct questions on the economy in the Q. & A.
Best moment: A strong and emotional litany of personal milestones about her work, her fight against cancer, and her loss of a child “to the demons of addiction” leading to the celebration of a “helping hand” over “dependence.”
Worst moment: Some clunky lines in the closing of her speech squandered her momentum and kept her from the kind of strong finish that would have left a deeper lingering impression in the minds (and hearts) of the attendees.
Overall: Captivated a roomful of activists, the vast majority of whom had never heard her speak and were delighted to have her front and center. Unquestionably kept the momentum going and solidified the jelling conventional wisdom that she will be a major player in the nomination conversation and the debates, both on the merits, and because the party doesn’t want an all-male ’16 lineup. Her sustained assault on Hillary Clinton demonstrated confidence and a fingertip feel for the Democratic frontrunner’s vulnerabilities—and was made in a way that no male candidate could pull off quite so well.
Style: Stayed tethered to the rostrum and teleprompter during his speech, with his signature optimistic message (which he still does as well as anyone in the field). Grew slightly more intense during his extended Q. & A. with Sean Hannity. Still looking for just the right tone to come off more as somber/serious than lackluster, but demonstrated his newish high level of confidence.
Substance: Rattled off his three priorities as president; contained a few specifics but mostly generalities. Made glancing references to the economic policy proposals in his book, but without much detail (but with more than most other speakers).
Best moment: Gave a confident, calm response to dealing with ISIS that showed a strong command of the issue on a topic that is front and center at CPAC.
Worst moment: Gave his stock answer about what he’s weighing regarding a presidential run. Sounded rote more than inspirational.
Overall: A presentation that was a distillation of the Rubio candidacy: biographical, generational, conversational, and optimistic. Was sharp and decisive and straightforward in the Q. & A., but never a firebrand. Solid and well received, but (not surprisingly) not a top-tier favorite of a crowd that prefers its meat more tartare than well-done.
Style: Signature toggle between hushed emotion and rallying shout that surfed the audience energy, punctuated by his “Cruz Stroll” around the stage with a wireless mic. Even as his Beltway tenure as a senator ticks by, he still pushes his anti-Washington, populist message without fear of contradiction or mockery. Biggest flaw: too often veered from happy warrior to angry warrior.
Substance: Can talk policy with fluent ease, but chose not to in his speech. Even when Sean Hannity in the Q. & A. asked him for his top five agenda items, he gave an answer—abolish Obamacare; abolish the IRS; scale back the power of regulators like the EPA; defend constitutional rights; and “restore America’s leadership in the world”—that was all list and no specifics.
Best moment: His refrain to voters—demand that all Republican presidential candidates state when they have stood and fought for the current hottest conservative causes—was an emotional, well-crafted, and distilled rendition of the Cruz message.
Worst moment: Opened with clunky jokes about Netanyahu and Hillary Clinton, reminding the world that his comedy chops remain one of his weakest rhetorical links.
Overall: Nobody in the party today speaks with as much confidence and energy. Showed message discipline on his winning anti-DC schtick, but with so many lines familiar to the audience, some of the enthusiasm drained from the room as he delivered his spiel. He hasn’t worn out his welcome by any means with the CPACers, but he offered up no second act or sense of growth.
Style: Stayed in his nouveau preferred mode of more jokey/less angry. Returned to the core message that made him big four years ago: touting his New Jersey record and semi-good-naturedly bashing the Beltway and the media (with the New York Times as his favorite target).
Substance: Most significantly, nicked Jeb Bush with purpose from the right for his statement about having immigrants re-populate Detroit. Promoted his pro-life record with crowd-pleasing resoluteness. Danced around his Common Core posture, but laid out his relationship and history with the teachers’ unions in some detail.
Best moment: A patented “sometimes people need to be told to sit down and shut up.”
Worst moment: In good form, he had no stumbles or sour lines.
Overall: Passed on giving a speech in favor of pure Q. & A. with Laura Ingraham. Gingerly set up a contrast with Jeb Bush by casting his rival as a creation of the establishment, and poking him on immigration. In words and tone, conveyed a sense that he would be a warrior against Hillary Clinton, thus presenting a convincing case that the Bushes and the Clintons don’t scare him one bit. Also effectively made the claim that he isn’t daunted by his recent run of hard times by citing his past political successes against the odds and promising to fight for the nomination. Some might doubt, however, that Christie (former RGA chair) can carry the message of an outsider, anti-establishment figure. Despite a mostly conservative record, Christie is always playing an away game at CPAC. He left stronger than he came in, although—make no mistake—he’s still in a deep hole with the grassroots and most of the establishment.
Style: At times, rather restrained by Trump standards (he generally raises the CPAC roof), but full of trademark asides and unselfconscious self-referential moments. Went there on Jeffrey Epstein in the Q. & A. in a classic Trump aside when asked about Bill Clinton; also called Hillary Clinton “a birther.”
Substance: Statements without specifics: “We need strong borders.” “Common Core is bad. The Second Amendment is good.” In the Q. & A. with Sean Hannity, said as president he would hit ISIS, nix Obamacare, reduce regulation, build up the military, straighten out the Veterans Department, “work on Iran” and help Israel.
Best moment: Tickled the CPAC ivories with an extended riff on how the Republican Party has to toughen up on a range of issues, including Obamacare.
Worst moment: Played to the crowd’s proclivities when he hit Jeb Bush on Common Core, but in a limp, lackluster, unTrumplike manner.
Overall: The crowd responded to his applause lines, but he didn’t captivate and electrify the room as he previously has here. When he said there was an “80 percent or so” chance he would run for president, earned a round of applause—but not an eruption.
Style: Began hot and loud on national security (defeating ISIS, defending Israel, facing down Putin) and criticism of the Obama administration. Then hit on immigration, with good crowd reaction, but lost momentum when he moved on to economic issues.
Substance: Called for a lower corporate tax rate, easier credit for small business, and border control, but was more about criticisms of Washington than solutions.
Best moment: Fiery defense of Israel lit up the room.
Worst moment: His arm-waving and shouting in his close, when he talked about freedom being on the march. #livefreeordie
Overall: Wants to be the Reagan candidate who leads with national security and champions the middle class, but, somewhat surprisingly, seems behind Walker, Cruz, Rubio, and others in having a fluid stump speech that plays to his strength. In presentation, came across as too much like the failed version from ’12, rather than Rick Perry 2.0, which is a bar he has to clear before he will have any chance to make the finals, in Iowa or over the long run.
Style: Classic Carson: Relaxed, with an easy laugh to accompany his typical dignified mien, but stiff and often flat. Began with some jokes, and used the personal anecdotes of his standard stump speech to enhance his points. Cerebral and mellow as always, but his sometimes chatty forays failed to rouse the sleepy morning crowd. Confident in a venue where he can do no wrong, but didn't deliver a single killer line.
Substance: Answers were mostly short and vague. He rattled off a few facts and numbers to prove his points about Medicaid and U.S. debt, but offered only more of the conservative philosophy that made him famous without providing any real policy solutions on topics such as health care, debt, terrorism, or the Second Amendment. A typical answer was on Common Core: He said the country needs school choice and the best education is “closest to home.”
Best Moment: Mocked liberal terminology, to the delight of the audience. ("If you're pro-traditional marriage, then you're a homophobe ... if you're black and you oppose the progressive agenda, you're crazy … if you're black and you oppose a progressive agenda, and you're pro-life, and you're pro-family, they don't even know what to call you. You end up on some kind of watch list for extremism."
Worst Moment: In the Q. & A., when he was asked to explain his specific plan to fight ISIS, responded only that he would “better define the mission.” That better-defined mission? "Destroy them first.”
Overall: It's tough being the first speaker, but if the unofficial rules of CPAC require the speaker to up his game and bring something new to the table, Carson didn't measure up. If you’ve heard one Ben Carson speech, you’ve heard this one. In fact, he even fell short of the inspiring pep-rally performance he delivered here in the past. Carson needs to start backing up his ideas with policy specifics. He held the stage with poise, appeal, and some appropriate buzzwords, but the hour was too early and the doctor’s tone too placid to bring down the house.
Style: Knows where the CPAC foreign policy buttons are and how to push them. Funny and glib and substantially more conversational than he was a few years ago.
Substance: Like almost every other speaker, more about critiquing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton than offering up a positive, proactive agenda. Others might have scored higher with this performance, but he is a policy expert who knows more than he gave up.
Best moment: His denunciation of Hillary Clinton over Benghazi was catnip to the audience.
Worst moment: Got bogged down in treaty discussions that deadened the room.
Overall: Continued his clever efforts to modulate his anti-Clinton message on national security to reach a broader audience than just Fox News loyalists. But, despite his best efforts, continues to struggle to make defense and diplomacy tangible kitchen-table issues, and largely ignores economics and social issues.
Style: Relaxed and conversational as he strolled the stage, but still looking for the right balance between strong and nuanced. His attempts at fire-breathing often undermined his uplifting verbal jaunts, rather than punctuating them. Lost the crowd with a jab at congressional Republicans, but eventually recalibrated and got his groove back.
Substance: Flaunted his big brain with discourse on Obamacare, Common Core, and ISIS, but didn’t offer specifics on what he would do as president, or much of a positive agenda.
Best moment: Told a personal story about his son’s problems with math that the audience seemed to latch onto.
Worst moment: Misread the room by trying a slow ramp up to start out that burdened him with a low-energy crowd throughout.
Overall: Would like to be the anti-Washington, anti-Common Core, anti-Obamacare candidate, but is temperamentally challenged in trying to outflank Ted Cruz and others. It is a hard truth for one of the smartest, most civic minded, and most accomplished potential candidates. At this point, he would be lucky to be considered a third-tier candidate, and his CPAC performance won’t elevate him any higher.
Style: More like the pre-presidential, Senator Santorum of old: intense, serious, and not always able to finish sentences with the level of articulation he aspires to hit.
Substance: Mostly anti-Obama generalities.
Best moment: “Ladies and gentlemen, we don’t need a weatherman-in-chief, we need a commander-in-chief to run this country.”
Worst moment: Joke about Kenya and Obama that was more off-key than an opera performance by Dennis Kucinich.
Overall: Had the unenviable task of following Rand Paul, which meant stepping into a room just as the energy was draining out. Fell into two familiar traps by talking too much about his past and not enough about the country’s economic future. He remains an underestimated force in Iowa and the fall debates, but in this venue overshadowed by Cruz, Paul, and Walker.
Style: More focused than she was at the Iowa cattle call, with all the usual Palin hallmarks present and accounted for: patriotism, sing-songy delivery, an admixture of canned lines and where-did-that-come-from? adlibs, and stylized humor.
Substance: Largely critiqued the White House for its treatment of veterans and conduct of the war on terror—“We will not tolerate politicians who squander the lives of our sons and daughters on the battlefield”—but devoid of specific policy ideas.
Best moment: Crowd erupted when she slammed the president’s foreign policy as too meek: “They say we can’t kill our way out of war? Really? Tell that to the Nazis. Oh wait, you can’t. They’re dead. Because we killed them.”
Worst moment: After a string of well-calibrated applause lines, received awkward silence when she said, “While Christians are bowing our heads to pray for you, radical Islamists want to cut off your head.”
Overall: Not clear she wants to be president or even run for it, but she still is a star attraction who tugs some of the right’s heartstrings as well as anyone else. In league with many national Republican figures, has shifted her focus from the (improved and improving) Obama economy to national security issues. Didn’t create a “run, Sarah, run” groundswell, but set her Twitter and Facebook followers aflutter.