Perez was welcomed into his new job on Saturday by jeering progressive activists
But while Democrats clawed at each other the festivities at CPAC were beginning to wind down
If Hillary Clinton had won the presidency last year, Tom Perez, the freshly elected Democratic National Committee chair, might well be entering his second month running her Justice Department.
Instead, Perez was welcomed into his new job on Saturday by jeering progressive activists, who for the second time in a year, saw their preferred pick to lead the party defeated after a protracted and unexpectedly feisty campaign. Supporters of Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the choice of Sen. Bernie Sanders, painted Perez’s election as another victory for an establishment they blame for ceding the White House to Donald Trump by alienating young and working class voters.
Minutes after the results were announced – Perez prevailed on a second ballot after falling one vote short on the first – the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Adam Green, a vocal Ellison backer, leaned back and ruminated on the contentious scene.
“This was not an ideological battle between a corporate Democrat and a progressive,” he said, noting that Perez too would have been his choice for attorney general in a Clinton administration. “We agree with him on policy and thought he would challenge big corporations like he did as (President Barack Obama’s) labor secretary.”
The problem, Green suggested, was that Perez did not – at least not yet – have “his finger on the pulse of progressive resistance” to the new administration. Across the ballroom, one young and frustrated Ellison supporter, Alexa Vaca, put it simply: “This shows that the Democratic Party didn’t learn their lesson.”
While Democrats clawed at each other in Atlanta, the festivities at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, were beginning to wind down. Over the previous 48 hours, the annual conservative gathering had welcomed its first sitting Republican president in his first year in office since Ronald Reagan.
“I wouldn’t miss a chance to talk to my friends,” Trump said between roars of approval during his Friday address. “These are my friends. And we’ll see you again next year and the year after that, and I’ll be doing this with CPAC whenever I can, and I’ll make sure that we’re here a lot.”
A year before, Trump skipped the conference, backing out the day before his scheduled appearance. The American Conservative Union, which organizes the gathering, bit back in response, saying Trump’s decision “comes at a critical time in our movement’s history. His decision sends a clear message to grassroots conservatives.”
That was then. Now, Trump is in the White House and supporters wearing his signature red hats dotted the conference’s halls and ballrooms. Asked if they considered the President a true conservative, attendees who affirmed his credentials – as eager to vouch for Trump as anti-Perez Democrats had been to highlight where the party’s establishment had failed them – employed an assortment of rhetorical contortions.
“I think that Trump is a different type of conservative than, perhaps, the mainstream conservative, and I think that’s why he got so far in the primaries,” said Wesley Dalton, a student at Brigham Young University in Utah.
Matt Batzel, the national executive director of American Majority, a conservative organization that trains grassroots activists, described Trump as a “Patriotic Conservative” before grinning and confessing, “I just made up that term.”
Even what remained of the GOP’s dedicated libertarian wing, which had been transformed by the rise of Trumpism from an ascendant force to a CPAC afterthought, sought to parlay the presidential moment by passing out caps that read, “Make Taxation Theft Again.”
“People don’t notice it as much here, because if we wear it around they just assume it’s the (Make America Great Again) hat,” said Zach Garretson, donor relations officer for the libertarian Stonegait Institute, “but when we’re not at an event like this and you wear that hat, people will look at it and be like, ‘Oh! What does that say?’”
Conservatives’ willingness to look beyond their unlikely standard-bearer’s ideological inconsistencies have been rewarded in the early running. They routinely made glowing reference to the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to be a Supreme Court justice – proof, many insisted, that Trump, whatever he actually believed, was firmly on track to govern like they hoped.
Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, praised Trump’s “conservative instincts” and applauded his Cabinet choices. He also welcomed top White House strategist Steve Bannon, who had for years been persona non grata at the venue, onstage for a discussion along with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
“I want to thank you for finally inviting me to CPAC,” Bannon said at the outset. The former Breitbart boss had previously hosted “The Uninvited,” a parallel gathering for fellow out-of-favor right-wingers. “I know there are many alumni out here in the audience.”
Schlapp nodded to the awkward moment, then declared: “Here’s what we decided to do at CPAC with the uninvited. We decided to say that everybody’s a part of our conservative family.”
And with that, they were off. Bannon railed against the media – “the opposition party” – and drew cheers as he outlined plans for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
More applause interrupted his description of Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, calling it “one of the most pivotal moments in modern American history.”
For observers of a party and movement that has traditionally embraced free trade, the scene was instructive. Not a year ago, the idea of a Republican administration’s scuttling of a massive free trade pact (and promise to take apart or narrow other existing deals) being met with rapturous ovations might have seemed absurd.
But the presidency has a certain affect on people and political parties.
With Barack Obama in the White House and Hilary Clinton, it seemed, poised to follow him, Democrats enjoyed nearly a decade of relative peace. On the eve of the election, as progressives put the finishing touches on strategies for nudging the new administration to the left, many confided that, for all the tumult of the primary, they fully expected the Clinton administration to offer them a seat at the table.
Nearly four months since those best laid plans went stunningly awry, Democrats have finally wrapped up a long leadership campaign – between two front-runners with nearly indistinguishable political profiles – with their own activist coalition in an uproar, rallying against Trump but also openly organizing and agitating for primary challenges to the party’s depleted House and Senate caucuses.
At CPAC on Saturday, the results of its annual survey ran in stark contrast to the scenes in Atlanta.
Eight in 10 of those polled agreed that Trump was “realigning the conservative movement” – and 86% approved of the job he has done since taking office in January.
“I love this place,” Trump said at the top of his speech a day before. “Love you people.”
And they loved the President right back. For Democrats, down in Atlanta, that kind of affection seemed a long way off.