In 1974, California Governor Ronald Reagan addressed a new conference of insurgent conservatives. But before going into what would become one of his most famous speeches, setting out his vision of the nation as “man’s last best hope” and “a city on a hill,” he introduced a young naval pilot recently released from a North Vietnamese prison.
As the audience gave 37-year-old John McCain a rousing standing ovation, Reagan chuckled.
“Well, I might as well sit down,” he said. “I can’t do better than that for the rest of the evening.”
The moment deserves some unpacking today, as conservatives gather for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. It’s an event little like the celebration of the future president and future senator, both of whom have built careers marked by support for aggressive US intervention abroad.
On the morning after Russia’s President Vladimir Putin invaded neighboring Ukraine, at least one speaker at the conference used the platform to criticize President Biden, a Democrat, as distracted by a crisis in a place Americans don’t care about. Others on the conference agenda have made comments that appear to sympathize with Russia. On Saturday, activists will hear from Donald Trump, who this week hailed Putin as a “genius.”
It’s not the first time CPAC has revealed how far the Republican Party has traveled in the Trump era. In 2018, when McCain was suffering from terminal brain cancer, a CPAC crowd whooped when Trump mentioned the senator’s name in a speech.
But the conference’s evolution from its intellectual roots to ardent populism continues to anger and sadden many on the right.
“CPAC has always been a place where conservatives gathered and debated ideas,” said Heath Mayo, the organizer of an alternative conservative meeting taking place this weekend in Washington, DC. “And it just isn’t anymore.”
The anti-anti-Putin line
Most Republican members of Congress have followed a traditional conservative line of condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and criticizing Biden for not acting more quickly to impose sanctions.
But while Biden’s alleged weakness has been widely criticized, this year’s CPAC features a number of speakers who have taken a starkly un-Reaganesque stance. (Two of the Republican Party’s most prominent hawks — former Vice President Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, a former UN ambassador under Trump — were not in attendance.)
Charlie Kirk, a conservative activist, said in his speech, “The southern border of the US is much more important than the Ukrainian border.” He added: “I’m more concerned about how the cartels are deliberately trying to infiltrate our country than about a dispute 5,000 miles away, cities we can’t pronounce, places most Americans can’t find on a map. “
Other speakers include Candace Owens, a popular podcast host who this week urged her three million Twitter followers to read Putin’s comments about Ukraine “to know what *really* is going on.” Tulsi Gabbard, a former Democratic congressman who has gained a following on the right, said on Twitter: “This war and suffering could have been easily avoided if Biden Admin/NATO had simply acknowledged Russia’s legitimate security concerns.”
It would be a mistake to conclude that such comments represent a majority of Republicans, said Quin Hillyer, a longtime conservative commentator.
“It’s not as widespread as loud,” Hillyer said. “The real debate among conservatives is about how to respond rather than whether they sympathize with the Russians.” He pointed to polls suggesting Republican voters are more anti-Putin than is commonly believed.
Republican Party historian Geoffrey Kabaservice said some conservatives are captivated by “applauding Putin as he destroys the liberal order and makes all those smart pants experts cry.”
“Tulsi Gabbard may believe in many things that the CPAC mob doesn’t believe, but they love her hunger for destruction — and all of that leans toward an anti-anti-Putin line,” he added.
Matt Schlapp, the head of the American Conservative Union, which leads CPAC, championed the conference as a platform for different points of view. But he said he preferred votes from non-established individuals.
“No one here has walked up to me and said, ‘Why isn’t Mitt Romney speaking?’” Schlapp said, referring to the Utah senator and 2012 Republican nominee. have. I don’t think he’s a constructive voice.”
“Nobody here thinks John McCain should be reincarnated and give a speech at CPAC,” he added, though he said he respected his war record.
‘Everything is fair game’
Despite all the criticism of CPAC, efforts to develop an alternative forum remain in their infancy.
This weekend 450 conservatives will gather in Washington, DC, for what organizers are billing as the anti-CPAC, Principles First conference.
The goal is to go back to the days when conservatives debated and inspired young activists, said Mayo, the group’s 31-year-old founder. “They respected disagreements and arguments. They stood on stage and argued. That’s why we followed them,” he says.
And while it’s not explicitly an anti-Trump rally, the anti-Trump vibe is impossible to ignore. In the 2016 presidential primaries, Mayo supported Marco Rubio, the aggressive Florida senator. The keynote speakers are Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, both Republicans censored by the party for their involvement with the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 riots in the Capitol. Both have been vocal supporters of Ukraine.
Roger Zakheim, the director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute in Washington, said “reasonable people may disagree” about the direction of the Republican Party, noting that Reagan himself often faced attacks from his right flank.
But he urged Republicans to reconnect with Reagan’s ideas on foreign policy, which he reduced to two fundamental principles: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. It must be fought for and for peace through strength.
The more discussion and disagreement, the better, Hillyer said. “Right now, Trump is not our flag bearer. We don’t have a national flag bearer,” he said. “So everything is fair game.”
What to read tonight?
For the latest updates on the rapidly changing situation in Ukraine, follow along with our Live coverage.
The Opinion Desk hosted an audio roundtable on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with commentary from Ross Douthat, Frank Bruni, Farah Stockman and his host, Lulu Garcia-Navarro.
Lara Jakes, Eric Schmitt and Edward Wong look at what could be happening in the Ukraine crisis, from cyberattacks and refugee flows to economic turbulence.
Before the invasion, polls showed Americans wary of major US involvement in Ukraine
It is too early to know exactly how Americans are reacting to the Russian invasion. But polls leading up to the conflict showed voters were clearly divided on how far the United States would have to go to support Ukraine — and what costs it would be willing to bear.
Understand the Russian attack on Ukraine
What is the basis of this invasion? Russia sees Ukraine as its natural sphere of influence, and it has become nervous about Ukraine’s proximity to the West and the prospect of the country possibly joining NATO or the European Union. Although Ukraine is part of neither, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.
Overall, 52 percent of Americans said the US should have a “minor role” in the situation in Ukraine, while 26 percent supported a “major role” and 20 percent argued for no role at all, according to a survey completed Monday. by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
As a surprising marker of how views on foreign policy have shifted in recent decades, Democrats were slightly more likely than Republicans to say the US should play a major role in the conflict. A Republican company, Echelon Research, found a similar split: 56 percent of Democrats believed the US had a moral responsibility to protect Ukraine, compared to just 31 percent of Republicans.
Recent investigations have shown little indication that the public was ready to rally behind Biden during an international crisis. Only 43 percent of voters approved of his treatment of his relationship with Russia, according to a Reuters poll. The census reflected his overall rating, suggesting that attitudes toward his dealings with Russia may reflect general attitudes toward his presidency more than any specific view of his foreign policy.
The studies were conducted before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and should be interpreted with caution. The findings represent only a baseline of where the public stood before the conflict, and attitudes can change quickly with new developments and continued media coverage. It may take several more days for most pollsters to fill out the surveys that were completed in full after the Russian invasion.
Still, the polls point to some of the political risks facing the Biden administration.
The Reuters poll found that only about half of Americans supported sanctions against Russia if it meant higher gas prices — as it seems likely — though more than two-thirds of voters said they were in favor of increased sanctions overall.
Even before the economic fallout from the conflict, most voters gave Biden a poor rating for his handling of the economy, inflation and gas prices. Voters have ranked inflation and the economy as one of the top problems facing the country in surveys conducted in recent months.
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