Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

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.

Can Perry run again for president?
Crist: Republican Party is "fractured"
IP: NJ Gov. Chris Christie at CPAC

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."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT