The CPAC Time Warp

Let’s crank up the CPAC time machine.

On March 20, 1981, there stood President Ronald Reagan, who told the Conservative Political Action Conference, “We’ve come to a turning point. We have a decision to make. Will we continue with yesterday’s agenda and yesterday’s failures, or will we reassert our ideals and our standards, will we reaffirm our faith, and renew our purpose?

“This is a time for choosing,” Reagan said.

In February 2011, the man behind the podium was Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who gave the Reagan Dinner address. “We face an enemy, lethal to liberty, and even more implacable than those America has defeated before. We cannot deter it; there is no countervailing danger we can pose. We cannot negotiate with it, any more than with an iceberg or a Great White. I refer, of course, to the debts our nation has amassed for itself over decades of indulgence. It is the new Red Menace, this time consisting of ink.”

Daniels continued: “Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers. King Pyrrhus is remembered, but his nation disappeared.

“We are at such a moment,” Gov. Daniels said. “I for one have no interest in standing in the wreckage of our Republic saying, ‘I told you so’ or ‘You should’ve done it my way.’”

And then came last weekend.

On Friday night, the Reagan Dinner speaker was Kari Lake, defeated Arizona gubernatorial nominee, who said, “There’s no hiding it. There’s no sugarcoating it. They stole that election. The entire world saw that crime was committed in broad daylight on Nov. 8. They sabotaged Election Day.”

Lake was referencing her own election, which she lost by less than 1% a week after she told supporters of the late U.S. Sen. John McCain to “Get the hell out!”

“I’m not just the most dangerous politician in America – I’m the most dangerous politician in the world because we are not going to let these people win,” Lake said.

Former president Donald Trump, who lost his reelection bid by 7 million votes in 2020 (and who spoke to CPAC the night before Daniels did in 2011), gave a rambling two-hour address on Saturday before a room not at capacity. “In 2016, I declared, ‘I am your voice,’” Trump said. “Today, I add, I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”

When Trump took office in January 2017, the national debt was $19.9 trillion, according to the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Fiscal Services. By September 2020, it stood at $26.9 trillion, which was an increase of $7 trillion, or 39%. It amounts to about $23,500 in new federal debt for every person in the U.S.

Conservative commentator Charlie Sykes of The Bulwark observed, “Ronald Reagan proclaimed ‘It’s Morning in America’; Trump declared, ‘I am Nemesis.’ It gives a taste of the bleak storm to come.”

Trump won the CPAC straw poll with 62%. Lake won the straw poll for veep.

Tom Nichols of The Atlantic noted, “Donald Trump went to CPAC and gave a speech that was, even by his delusional standards, dark and violent. Much of it was hallucinatory. It is long past time to admit that support for Trump, after all that we now know, is a moral failing. Anyone who cares about the health of American democracy, of any party or political belief, should say clearly that to applaud Trump’s fantasies and threats at CPAC is to show an utter lack of civic character.”

During his 1981 address  – coming a little more than a week before he survived an assassination attempt –  President Reagan told this story: “You know, one day the great baseball manager Frankie Frisch sent a rookie out to play center field. The rookie promptly dropped the first fly ball that was hit to him. On the next play he let a grounder go between his feet and then threw the ball to the wrong base. Frankie stormed out of the dugout, took his glove away from him and said, `I’ll show you how to play this position.’ And the next batter slammed a line drive right over second base. Frankie came in on it, missed it completely, fell down when he tried to chase it, threw down his glove, and yelled at the rookie, `You’ve got center field so screwed up nobody can play it.’”

“The point is we must lead a nation,” Reagan continued, “and that means more than criticizing the past. Indeed, as T. S. Eliot once said, ‘Only by acceptance of the past will you alter its meaning.’”

Reagan referred to a speech he gave on behalf of Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964. “I said, `We’ve been told increasingly that we must choose between left or right.’ And I’ll repeat what I said then in ‘64. `There is no left or right. There’s only an up or down’: Up to the ultimate in individual freedom, man’s age old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with an orderly society – or down to the totalitarianism of the ant heap. And those today who, however good their intentions, tell us that we should trade freedom for security are on that downward path.”

The columnist is managing editor of Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs at Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.