The Conservative Political Action conference, now in its 41st year, has a tendency to conjure up the image of a wild Republican circus. And while there are elements of the absurd, it is also a barometer of how the right views the current cultural climate, and what it means to be American. CPAC is also what America thinks it should be like.
There was no shortage of visual joy at CPAC, especially for a British person (read: an outsider) like myself. But there was a palpable sense of fear, reflected in the speeches and panels, but also with the War on Youth representatives, or the promotion of the movie Persecuted, a political thriller about the persecution of religious freedom and freedom of speech. In short, they can't wait until the Obama presidency is over.
This is the definite image of CPAC: an all-American woman interviews an all-American man for the Tea Party News Network. The network, which features such headlines on their website as, "Dan Bongino at CPAC: Make No Mistake, Obamacare is Going to Decimate Communities and People will Die," also claim to be a source for the "REAL news." Other cultural phenomenons at CPAC included the Sportsman Channel (which will air Sarah Palin's new show, Amazing America, and includes a lot of men wearing camo) and Townhall, a media group that wasn't authorized to speak with other media.
There was a clear effort at CPAC this year to appeal to youth after seeing the Democrats esentially own that demographic, in part by figuring out how technology works. At times, the National Harbor resembled a free market summer camp, and what better way to tell the kids there is a war being waged against them than using bare-armed, military-lite foot soldiers? These two are from the War on Youth, an organization funded by Koch-backed Generation Opportunity, which was responsible for the Creepy Uncle Sam ad. Other ways to appeal to young voters were the questionable Star Wars theme employed by HowMoneyWalks.com, and seemingly endless workshops on how to use the Internet ("Workshop: How to Make Your Posts Go Upworthy").
The Accuracy In Media booth did a solid job of rounding up the best T-shirts and bumper stickers to infuriate the nation's Prius drivers.
Don Irvine, chairman of Accuracy In Media, a group devoted to calling out media bias, talked about the conservative "sense of humor," evidenced by this selection of bumper stickers, as one of the reasons why conservative media, especially talk radio, has been so successful and influential. While the left have The Daily Show, the right had Radio Row, a long line of radio shows broadcasting live from CPAC.
Coozies were one of the most popular freebies, and great way for candidates to show that they're happy to provide America's youth with an easier way to hold a cold can of seltzer water. The official Rep. Louie Gohmert coozie was also seen around CPAC. The artful use of chatty speech bubbles and hashtags also shows the Cruz campaign taking some steps to rally the youth.
Ronald Reagan's face was naturally all over CPAC. The Young America's Foundation worked particularly hard to make sure no one forgot The Gipper, handing out posters of Ronnie on horseback and the official 2014 Reagan Ranch Calendar. They also switched it up by giving out posters on Sarah Palin, also on horseback.
While the right is taking steps to show it has ideas to address young people's problems today, CPAC's swarms of young people largely continued to show reverence for the good old days, mourning for a time before they were born.
Big Dawg Music Mafia's Buck Allen gets a helping hand from a ubiquitous patriot, who waved the flag while Allen sang, "Don't Tread on Me." By Saturday afternoon, this seemed like a completely normal thing to see. Here's the video:
There he is again. But at least Ronald Reagan's cardboard cutout supports Equality For Puerto Rico. This booth was unmanned on Saturday afternoon.
Over at the National Review booth, William Buckley's cardboard cutout, which looks eerily alive except for its monochrome coloring, reminded attendees that he remains a conservative legend.
Dr. Ben Carson was a fast-rising star at CPAC, despite the fact that he said Obamacare is the worst thing since slavery, or because of it. A lot of CPAC attendees were wearing a T-shirt featuring Carson and Reagan's face side by side with the slogan, "Great Communicators," and there are calls for him to run for president in 2016.
A can of Monster Energy and a the BBC Sports football page sums up the last day of CPAC. By Saturday, the energy had been drained, the crowds had thinned, and the only thing left to talk about was Sarah Palin, who eked out a 2 percent vote in the CPAC straw poll. Rand Paul won again this year with 31 percent.