Rand Paul, This Isn’t Your Father’s CPAC

Rand Paul is still a fan favorite here. But attendees were roused by invocations of President Obama’s weakness on national security.

Sen. Rand Paul signs an autograph during a book signing at CPAC, 2015. 
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Feb. 27, 2015, midnight

The Con­ser­vat­ive Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Com­mit­tee has al­ways fea­tured a young­er, more-liber­tari­an audi­ence than typ­ic­al GOP gath­er­ings, and Rand Paul has been a crowd fa­vor­ite for his oc­ca­sion­ally un­ortho­dox views. But in a de­par­ture from past con­fer­ences, nearly all of the loudest ap­plause lines came when speak­ers ar­tic­u­lated the threat of rad­ic­al Is­lam and in­voked their sup­port for Is­rael’s Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu in his spat with the White House.

Carly Fior­ina re­ceived the con­fer­ence’s first stand­ing ap­plause when she thundered that Net­an­yahu “travels here next week not to of­fend our pres­id­ent, but to warn the Amer­ic­an people that our pres­id­ent’s in­sist­ence on a deal with Ir­an at all costs is a danger to the world.” Louisi­ana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal spent an en­tire sec­tion of his speech lam­bast­ing Pres­id­ent Obama for avoid­ing call­ing Is­lam­ic ter­ror­ism by its name. His biggest ap­plause line came when he called on the United States to “hunt down and kill these rad­ic­al Is­lam­ic ter­ror­ists.” Even Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er, who hasn’t fo­cused too much on for­eign policy, ad­jus­ted his stump speech to note that his con­ten­tious battles with uni­ons in his home state gives him ample pre­par­a­tion to take on IS­IS.

The red-meat speeches came on a day when the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is de­liv­er­ing mixed sig­nals over wheth­er the coun­try is fa­cing a grow­ing ter­ror­ist threat—an is­sue that’s emer­ging as a ser­i­ous Demo­crat­ic vul­ner­ab­il­ity for 2016. James Clap­per, the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s dir­ect­or of na­tion­al in­tel­li­gence, test­i­fied be­fore Con­gress today that last year was the “most leth­al year for ter­ror­ism” since stat­ist­ics were com­piled 45 years ago. That con­trasts with a more-op­tim­ist­ic as­sess­ment from Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry Wed­nes­day that the scope of the ter­ror­ist threat was be­ing over­stated. This, as a new Pew Re­search Cen­ter poll shows Re­pub­lic­ans hold­ing siz­able, grow­ing leads over Demo­crats on ter­ror­ism (20 points) and na­tion­al se­cur­ity (16 points). The sur­vey marks the first time Re­pub­lic­ans have held a sol­id edge on “mak­ing wise de­cisions on for­eign policy” for the first time since 2002—be­fore the war in Ir­aq.

But not all of the Re­pub­lic­ans were as pre­pared as oth­ers. Walk­er re­ceived the most en­thu­si­ast­ic re­sponse of all the GOP speak­ers, but his lines on na­tion­al se­cur­ity fell flat with many con­ser­vat­ives. “If I can take on 100,000 pro­test­ers, I can take on the rest of the world,” he said, re­fer­ring to his clashes with labor. That promp­ted Na­tion­al Re­view‘s Jim Ger­aghty to call the line a “genu­ine un­forced er­ror.”

New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie spent more time swip­ing at The New York Times than the Is­lam­ic State in his in­ter­view with talk-show host Laura In­gra­ham. Talk­ing tough is a ma­jor part of the Christie brand, and the gov­ernor missed an op­por­tun­ity to de­liv­er a red-meat speech fo­cused on the ter­ror­ist threat to im­prove his flag­ging con­ser­vat­ive cre­den­tials. (In fair­ness, In­gra­ham’s ques­tions fo­cused on his per­son­al­ity and im­mig­ra­tion, but Christie se­lec­ted the format.)

For his part, Rand Paul will be speak­ing Fri­day morn­ing, and ac­cord­ing to pre­views, he’s ex­pec­ted to fo­cus less on for­eign policy than his coun­ter­parts. In an in­ter­view with Politico, he slammed Jeb Bush for sup­port­ing Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency sur­veil­lance meth­ods de­signed to track ter­ror­ist activ­ity. “If he’s smart, he won’t bring that [is­sue] up at CPAC,” Paul said. He earli­er told Ya­hoo’s Katie Cour­ic that he’s not will­ing to send Amer­ic­an troops in­to battle if the loc­al forces aren’t pre­pared, call­ing in­stead for bet­ter arm­ing the Kur­d­ish pesh­merga troops.

Paul nev­er was go­ing to win over the mus­cu­lar ele­ments of the Re­pub­lic­an Party, and he’s still a strong con­tender to win the group’s straw poll. But with the GOP hawks ex­per­i­en­cing a re­sur­gence as fears over ter­ror­ism grow, oth­er Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates have the chance to make in­roads by ar­tic­u­lat­ing tough cri­ti­cisms against the pres­id­ent’s for­eign policy. When the audi­ence at CPAC starts sound­ing more like the crowd at AIPAC, it’s clear the polit­ic­al winds are shift­ing.

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