Mar 5, 2023 - Politics & Policy

CPAC exposes conservative split

The audience for former President Trump's CPAC speech. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This week's CPAC conference underscored the difficulty Republicans will have in keeping their increasingly fractured coalition together for 2024.

Why it matters: The Republican Party once was defined by its general ideological unity on three core conservative principles: free markets, a muscular foreign policy and traditional social values. Those pillars made up the Reagan revolution.

  • But the MAGA movement, which dominated this year's CPAC conference, has moved the GOP's center of gravity toward a more protectionist, populist and belligerent outlook.
  • The driving theme of the conference was fighting "wokeness," one of the few issues that still unites the GOP.

What happened: Companies showcasing progressive values that embrace diversity — such as Disney and PNC Bank — came under attack.

  • Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), meanwhile, urged defunding the FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies if they don't get "back on our side" — a reference to the many investigations of GOP officials, including himself. He received a standing ovation.
  • Venture capitalist and GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy called for the FBI to be shut down and replaced with something else.

What they're saying: Trump delivered the conference's keynote address Saturday with a vengeful indictment of the GOP establishment that dominated the party before his political ascent.

  • "We will expel the warmongers, we will drive out the globalists, we will cast out the communists, we will throw off the political class that hates our country," Trump said.
  • "The Republican Party was ruled by freaks, neocons, open-border zealots and fools. We're never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and Jeb Bush," Trump went on. He then pledged to protect Social Security from any Republicans pursuing reduced benefits.

The intrigue: The divide over Ukraine was on full display at CPAC: Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) targeted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in her speech Friday, telling him to "leave your hands off of our sons and daughters."

  • But two of the highest-profile speakers — former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley — are unapologetic Ukraine hawks (Haley is running for president, and Pompeo is considering it).
  • Asked about Haley's presidential campaign, Greene said: "I don't listen to Nikki Haley and I don't think she's going to do well in the primary."

Notable quotable: A top Trump adviser told Axios that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who hasn't entered the race but is widely presumed to be Trump's top competitor for the nomination — has "Reagan Republican" vulnerabilities the former president will exploit.

By the numbers: Trump dominated DeSantis at the CPAC straw poll, 62%-20%. That's an improvement from his 2022 CPAC performance, when Trump led DeSantis 59%-28% — and not surprising, given the MAGA-focused theme of the convention.

  • The straw poll found 79% of CPAC attendees oppose U.S. military aid to Ukraine, while 74% want abortion regulated on the state (not federal) level.

The bottom line: Trump's campaign is prioritizing the 30% of Republicans who consider themselves "Trump-first Republicans," while letting his rivals compete for backing among those who support the party first.

  • Trump has put together a small, professional operation that has leaned into these contrasts to an even greater degree than in his initial 2016 campaign.
  • If DeSantis runs, he has an opportunity to strike a middle ground between Trump's unadulterated populism and mainstream conservativism. But as his muddled comments on Ukraine showed, he's at risk of trying to be everything to everyone — while Trump runs as the true MAGA believer.
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