The contrasting visions offered by Republicans at a political conference this week suggest that their party has yet to come to terms with its recent election losses and decide on a strategy to win back the presidency in 2016.
Whereas New Jersey governor Chris Christie and outgoing Texas governor Rick Perry held up the popularity and success of their administrations as a possible blueprint for a national Republican renewal, Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky implored attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington DC not to lose sight of their principles.
But Christie, who governs in a state Barack Obama won in 2012 by almost 18 percentage points, advocated a more pragmatic approach than Perry, who has governed in one of the country’s most reliably Republican state for twelve years, while Cruz’ and Paul’s ideological appeals had very different priorities.
“We don’t get to govern if we don’t win,” Christie reminded the conference to which he had not been invited last year after appearing with President Obama when his state was recovering from a hurricane.
It was also Christie’s first prominent public appearance since it emerged late last year that his staffers had conspired to create a traffic jam in Fort Lee, across the Hudson River from New York City, apparently in retribution for the city’s mayor’s refusal to endorse him in his reelection campaign. The governor’s emphasis on fiscal consolidation and improved public education had made him seem a viable presidential contender but the scandal might well foil an attempt on his part to win the Republican nomination.
Cruz, by contrast, cited the defeat of the relatively moderate conservative Mitt Romney in the most recent presidential election to support his claim that, “When you don’t stand for principle, the Democrats celebrate.” He argued that Republicans won the 2010 congressional elections — and gave rise to the conservative Tea Party movement — because they drew a line in the sand. “We said we stand unequivocally against Obamacare, against bankrupting the country and we won a historic tidal wave of an election,” he said.
Except for 2010, when they retook control of the House of Representatives, Republicans have lost three out of the last four national elections.
Whereas Cruz, a conservative firebrand, notably did not mention divisive social issues such as abortion or gay marriage but called for constitutional restraint, lower taxes and expanded school choice instead, Paul focused on civil liberty issues in his speech, such as electronic surveillance. Both men drew enthusiastic applauses from the crowd.
The annual CPAC gathering is an opportunity for party activists to seize up early presidential hopefuls but the audience does not reflect the Republican electorate nationwide. Senator Paul’s father, Ron, a longtime Texas congressman, won its 2010 and 2011 straw polls but stood little chance of winning the party’s presidential nomination the following year.