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Moving the clock for conservatives: Are they springing forward or falling back?

By Donna Brazile
updated 8:17 AM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Donna Brazile: Conservatives trying to figure out where they stand as 2014 midterms approach
  • Some see themselves as isolationists, while others call for intervention
  • The party is still struggling to attract women and minorities

Editor's note: Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in America." She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000.

(CNN) -- Time has changed. In fact, most of the country just moved an hour forward.

The time change coincides with the conclusion of the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC. The activists attending the conference are the Republican Party's shock troops, but some Republican strategists don't want them to shock mainstream voters this fall.

Still, the gathering proved somewhat of a litmus test for a schizophrenic conservative base trying to figure out where it stands as the 2014 midterms approach, all the while struggling with change in a country that is changing quite rapidly.

It tells you something that one of the biggest applause lines of CPAC wasn't even an applause line. It occurred when Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell held a rifle on stage. (The rifle was presented to Sen. Tom Coburn.)

Donna Brazile
Donna Brazile

It also tells you something that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was invited to CPAC this year, now that he is embroiled in the Bridgegate scandal, but he was not invited last year, when he was on his way to re-election in a Democratic state.

It seems like CPAC's test is whether you're making the right enemies. If the mainstream media is going after you, then CPAC will invite you.

Christie's CPAC speech was directed to the conservative Republican base; he didn't talk beyond them, to a wider audience, as he did last year when he was running for re-election. He referred repeatedly to his anti-abortion positions. He attacked the news media and defended the Koch brothers.

But in between the back-slapping and pontificating in the ballrooms and back rooms at CPAC, a new rift emerged inside the GOP.

There appears to be a real division and a real debate in the Republican Party between the isolationists and the interventionists. In 1952, it was between Sen. Robert Taft and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. That debate still isn't settled.

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In order for President Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden to be moderates, they just have to present themselves between the extremes of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's isolationism and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's hawkishness—the difference between living in a cave or conducting ourselves so that we're in need of one.

And, so far, the conservatives at the conference seemed to be picking up what Paul was laying down. In the annual CPAC straw poll, Paul appeared to be as popular as his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, was in 2010. Rand Paul won 31% of the votes this year (but history shows CPAC straw polls aren't always the best predictors of who will be nominated). Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who used his time before CPAC to imply that former Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole was unprincipled, got 11%. Rubio, who came in second in 2013, took a nosedive after recommending mild reform of immigration laws, and placed seventh with 6%.

Cruz clearly displayed a tin ear and a lack of basic humanity by attacking "President Bob Dole" as a failed moderate nominee, now that Bob Dole, an American hero, is in his 90s and out of politics.

Cruz is clearly running against the Washington Republican establishment. This strategy may serve him well until the point in the primaries when establishment figures like Karl Rove will unleash millions in negative commercials, the likes of which sank Newt Gingrich.

Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Rick Perry gave a pulse-quickening speech that brought the crowd to its feet. Perry praised Republican governors and hit Washington, saying, "It is time for Washington to focus on the few things the Constitution establishes as the federal government's role. ... Defend our country, provide a cogent foreign policy, and what the heck, deliver the mail, preferably on time and on Saturdays."

Perry may have forgotten that the Post Office has been independent of Congress since 1971 and is run, by law, as a "revenue neutral" (nonprofit) agency. He also apparently forgot the clauses "insure domestic tranquility" and "promote for the general welfare." Perry also ignored the duties of Congress, which is just as well. The third branch of government is, by political strategy, so gridlocked that it has all but ceased to function.

Perry's emphasis on the role of governors underscores the political reality that mayors, governors and the President must engage in executive workarounds for this nonfunctioning Congress.

The Republican Party has been struggling to attract minorities for decades. The party was trounced by the Democrats, who in 2012 got 93% of the African-American vote, 73% of the Asian vote and 71% of the Hispanic vote. CPAC held a panel discussion on minority outreach; a photo 10 minutes into the event embarrassingly showed row upon row upon row of empty chairs.

The Republican Party did poorly in its outreach to female voters in 2012, who voted 55% for Obama and only 44% for Republican Mitt Romney. In 2014, at CPAC, attention to the ladies was also wanting. Los Angeles Times writer Robin Abcarian took a challenge from CPAC's chairman, Al Cardenas, to count the number of male and female speakers at CPAC. It came out lopsidedly for the men—by 78%.

By definition, conservatives struggle with change. CPAC was proof of the old saying that "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Donna Brazile.

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