CPAC 2014: Reading The Tea (Party) Leaves

March 6, 2014

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the annual gathering of conservatives which is part pep rally, part trade show, part revival meeting and part political cattle call, rolls into Washington this week.

As the 2014 version gets underway, one of the major questions hanging over the event is this: how much juice does the Tea Party still have?

Recent months haven’t seen the kind of hard-right insurgent victories that rocked the conservative establishment two years ago. The Tea Party’s preferred candidates didn’t come close to running the table in the Texas Republican primary Tuesday. And since the end of last year’s partial government shutdown, a dismissive Speaker John Boehner has seemingly found ways to make end runs around Tea Party forces in his House Republican conference.

So journalists and political pros will be looking to CPAC for further signs of Tea Party weakening — or rejuvenation.

This year’s conference will also provide another opportunity for likely 2016 Republican presidential candidates to drop their best applause lines on the gathered conservatives as their supporters try to orchestrate a straw poll win for their candidate.

While Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida will be popular figures at CPAC, there will also be keen interest in the reception accorded New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Until rather recently, many conservatives viewed Christie with suspicion because, among other things, he spoke too appreciatively of President Obama’s response to Superstorm Sandy right before the 2012 election.

But ever since the George Washington Bridge scandal broke, damaging Christie’s presidential prospects, many conservatives have rallied around him. It will be watching to see if that reaction continues at CPAC.

Another CPAC dynamic worth keeping an eye on: the divide between social conservatives and libertarians. CPAC even has a Friday session devoted to that relationship titled: “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Ever Get Along?”

The answer to that question is more consequential than ever given the Rand Paul’s ascendancy in the party and his frequent mention as a strong contender for the 2016 GOP nomination.

Along the same social conservative-libertarian fault lines will be a Thursday session on legalized marijuana featuring Mary Katherine Ham, editor at large, for, who favors legalization, and Janak Joshi, a Colorado state representative who’s opposed. That one could get lively.

Of course, much of CPAC’s appeal is rooted in the appearances by some of the brightest stars in the conservative firmament.

Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee and Ann Coulter are among the conservative celebrities who can be counted on to stir excitement and, perhaps, some intentional controversy as they vie to deliver the most memorable attack lines against President Obama and the left.

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