WASHINGTON – Paul Ryan, addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, disputed the notion that “the Republican Party is in this big, massive civil war.”
“I don’t see this great divide in our party,” the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee said.
Ryan had a point. The notion of “civil war,” often used to describe the clash between the Republican establishment and the tea party, implies a conflict with identifiable sides. In reality, the GOP condition is more of a free for all.
The annual CPAC gathering, conservatism’s trade show, provides a snapshot of the anarchy:
The group’s much-celebrated straw poll of presidential candidates listed no fewer than 26 prospective contenders on the ballot this year – a sign of just how fractured the party is in advance of 2016.
A rump group of conservatives, thinking CPAC insufficiently pure in its ideology, staged a shadow conference in the same National Harbor complex outside Washington. Breitbart News, which hosted the event, used a battle image from the movie “Braveheart” on its announcement of the gathering and called it “The Uninvited,” because many of its speakers “were not invited to CPAC.”
CPAC, though not pure enough for “The Uninvited,” was pure enough to snub the nation’s highest ranking Republican; House Speaker John Boehner wasn’t invited. But CPAC did invite Boehner’s Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, who faces a tea party primary challenge this year. McConnell walked onto the enormous stage at the Gaylord convention center carrying a rifle and held the weapon awkwardly over his head.
CPAC made some efforts to widen its tent, inviting a group of gay Republicans to attend (but not to speak or to set up in the exhibit hall) and allowing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, regarded by conservatives as too moderate, to address the assembly. But the reception for Christie was cool (and many of the “premium” seats up front remained empty) even as he pandered to the crowd by bashing the media and touting his anti-abortion record. A more enthusiastic reception was given to billionaire Donald Trump, a leading figure in the movement questioning Obama’s birth certificate; his rambling speech included a reference to the 39th president as “the late, great Jimmy Carter.”
The conservative movement is united in one way: its antipathy toward anything that has to do with President Barack Obama. In the 2014 midterm elections, that will likely be enough to allow Republicans to keep the House and possibly win the Senate.
But their shared opposition to Obama masks disagreements over who will lead the party and where it will go. “The fact is,” Christie told CPAC to modest applause, “we’ve got to start talking about what we’re for and not what we’re against.”
Christie is right about that. The problem is the biggest applause lines, for him and the others, were not about what they are for but about the man they are against.
Christie: “Mr. President, what the hell are we paying you for?”
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal: “To President (Jimmy) Carter, I want to issue a sincere apology. It is no longer fair to say he was the worst president of this great country in my lifetime. President Obama has proven me wrong.”
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas: “We need to repeal every single word of Obamacare.”
Take away the shared contempt of Obama, and there was little left. After strolling past the talk-radio booths (sponsored by Koch Industries), participants could hear sessions on “The American Dream vs. The Obama Nightmare,” and “Health care After ObamaCare: A Practical Guide for Living When No One Has Insurance and America Runs Out of Doctors.”
The booths in the CPAC exhibit hall made very clear what the conservatives are against: anti-U.N., anti-AARP, anti-Federal Reserve, anti-union, anti-abortion, anti-bilingualism, anti-lawsuit, anti-gay marriage.
There were “pro” booths, too: pro-Cruz, pro-Sarah Palin and pro-Rand Paul. But that only underscored the party’s, and the movement’s, lack of agreement on its leadership.
It isn’t so much a split – the “establishment” has gone so far to co-opt the tea party that the lines between them are blurry – as a lack of agreement on who should be leading the party and in which direction. Should it be the uncompromising Cruz (he also was on the agenda at the “Uninvited” splinter convention)? The get-it-done Christie? The internationalist Marco Rubio? The libertarian Paul? The anti-union Scott Walker? Or Ryan the social engineer? (Ryan spoke of how a “brown paper bag,” rather than a free school lunch, meant a child “had someone who cared for him.”)
When you have 26 conservative combatants, you don’t have war; you have mayhem.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.