ORLANDO, Florida – For decades the same ritual has taken place following Republican election defeats.
Moderate, establishment-aligned party officials would argue that the candidates had veered too far to the right on issues such as immigration, as well as in their language, and would recommend a return to the political center. And Conservatives would argue that Republicans have given up on real faith and need to go back to first principles to distinguish themselves from Democrats and claim victory.
One could be forgiven for having missed this debate in the aftermath of 2020, because it is barely taking place. Republicans have entered a sort of post-political moment where the most animated forces in the party are the emotions, not the problems.
This change was highlighted last weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where the Trumpification of the annual rally and the former president’s vow of revenge on his intra-party criticisms made headlines.
But what was not said at the event is just as striking. There has been very little discussion of why Republicans have lost the Presidency, House, and Senate over the past four years, nor much debate over what platform they should pursue to rebuild the party.
The lack of soul-searching is in part due to the surprise gains of Republicans in the House and the denial by many activists that they have lost the White House, a false claim enthusiastically perpetuated by former President Donald J. Trump him – even Sunday. , to the delight of the crowd.
The former president, however, was not the only high-profile Republican to demonstrate that confronting Democrats and the news media, while exploiting the party’s grassroots grievances against both, is the best recipe to be saluted at the top. within today’s GOP.
“We can sit down and have academic debates on conservative politics, we can do it,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said in a standing ovation in his remarks to CPAC. “But the question is, when the klieg lights get hot, when the left comes after you: will you stay strong, or will you go to bed?”
It’s the party Mr. Trump has remade – and that’s why so many mainstream Republicans are dismayed, or at least alarmed, that Trumpism is replacing conservatism.
“The future of the Republican Party depends on debate and the promotion of big ideas rooted in our belief in limited government constitutionalism,” said Representative Chip Roy of Texas, arguing that the party should orient itself around “the because of the liberation of the American people from the mandates, closures, regulations and taxes imposed by a powerful government. “
Mr. Roy was on one of the few CPAC panels focused on government spending, once a central issue on the right, and used his time to advocate with the audience. “There is nothing more important at the moment,” he said. “We allow Washington, DC to take control of our lives, but we foot the bill.”
If the spectators felt the same sense of urgency, they did not show it.
In his remarks later today, Mr. Trump sought to explain “Trumpism” – “what it means is good business,” he dared – but his potential heirs clearly recognize that the heart of his call is more emotional than the agenda.
Beyond the former president, no Republican in attendance drew a more fervent response than Mr. DeSantis and Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota, two former House members who became first-term governors.
Neither has sketched a new political agenda or presented a new vision for a party that has only won the national popular vote once in more than 30 years. Rather, they drew repeated standing ovations for what they share in common: a shared sense of victimization in the face of media criticism for their handling of the coronavirus crisis and a pugnacious disregard for public health experts who called to more aggressive restrictions in their states.
“I don’t know if you agree with me, but Dr Fauci is very wrong,” Ms Noem said in her remarks, referring to the country’s leading infectious disease specialist. The statement got participants on their feet, even as she glossed over her condition’s high death rate during the pandemic.
Since the dawn of the modern conservative movement in the mid-20th century, there has been an element of right-wing victimization politics – the feeling that powerful liberal forces are pitted against conservatives and that Republicans can send a message with their vote. .
“Bother the Media: Re-elect Bush” was one of the most popular stickers of George HW Bush’s 1992 campaign, now frequently remembered as the gentlemanly antithesis of Mr. Trump. Yet within the Republican Party there has always been debate – intense, immense and very substantial.
In the 1970s, the party clashed over the role of the United States in the world, separating itself from control of the Panama Canal and whether the Soviet Union should be faced with the open hand or the closed fist. In the 80s and 90s, battles over abortion raged, opposition to Roe v. Wade emerging as a litmus test for many on the right.
In the second Bush administration and subsequent years, Republicans were divided over immigration and, again, America’s imprint abroad.
Notably, many of these clashes took place at CPAC. In 2011, Mitch Daniels, then governor of Indiana, gave a high-profile speech at the rally to warn of the growing danger of “the new red threat” – red ink, not the Red Army – which aimed at the Conservatives. overwhelmed by the heavy expenses of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, then his son Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, used the conclaves to challenge Bush-style interventionism, delighting young audiences and prompting them to flood the ballot with straw on their behalf.
Not coincidentally, the top three finalists in this year’s straw poll were the three who flouted coronavirus restrictions the most: Mr. Trump, Mr. DeSantis and Ms. Noem.
“They are seen as young strangers sympathetic to Trump,” said Amanda Carpenter, a former GOP Senate aide who now writes for The Bulwark website, of Mr. DeSantis, 42, and Ms. Noem, 49 years.
Interviews with conference attendees suggest that many were drawn to the two governors primarily for their style.
Sany Dash, who sold merchandise at a CPAC booth, explained that she loved Ms. Noem “because she stands up for herself,” adding, “I feel like she’s a Trump woman, except that ‘she is neither rude nor rude. ”
“He’s got just the right amount of Trumpiness going for him,” Brad Franklin, a recent college graduate, said of Mr. DeSantis.
Others pointed out that the governor of Florida has been criticized by the media for his handling of the coronavirus as the state has suffered fewer deaths per capita than several states with Democratic governors.
Ms Noem singled out one of those governors, Andrew M. Cuomo of New York City, in his remarks on Saturday, prompting a cascade of boos.
Something very different happened, however, when Ms Noem brought up politics just long enough to bemoan the increase in the national debt.
“We have forgotten principles that were once close to our hearts,” she said. No one applauded.
Elaina plott contribution to reports.