Ted Cruz & CPAC: What a Pair!

If CPAC is a key barometer of the conservative movement, then let’s face it — all hopes that the right side of the political spectrum is ripe for a re-boot in its approach to defense strategy and foreign policy are sadly misplaced.

Sure, there was a millisecond of opportunity when Republican Sen. Rand Paul stood up at the Heritage Foundation last month and spoke of containment over preemptive war, diplomacy over boots on the ground. He won some more points here at Antiwar when he filibustered over the question of whether the administration had the right to kill its citizens in drone attacks on U.S soil. He even used his time to rebuke the president for using the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to wage "war in unlimited places."

"It was a wide-ranging indictment of our foreign policy of global interventionism, a gauntlet thrown down in the path of the neocons who control the foreign policy department of the GOP," wrote Antiwar’s Justin Raimondo, who up until that point had not been a very big fan.

But the Heritage speech has been overtaken by events, and despite much talk about the evil of drones, we don’t yet know whether Republicans who joined with Rand on the filibuster did so on principal or merely to thwart the Democratic President and his nominee for CIA Director, John Brennan. Brennan was ultimately confirmed, so it will be interesting to see which Republicans actually remain committed, including Rand Paul.

Ted Cruz
Ted Cruz

We know one thing — Paul may be speaking at CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference) in Washington on Thursday, but it’s Sen. Ted "Tea Party" Cruz from Texas who is getting the top slot, which is always the closing speech of the massive three-day confab. Cruz had also joined Paul in the filibuster, but you will best remember Cruz as the senator who all but called Chuck Hagel a turncoat and an anti-Semite during his confirmation hearings. It was black theater not seen since the McCarthy investigations 60 years ago: in order to shame Hagel over his ostensive lack of love for Israel and equally weak approach to Iran, Cruz indulged in cheap guilt-by-association invectives and shamelessly ripped Hagel’s own words out of context to use against him. Whether he was operating on his own, or on behalf of his powerful neoconservative friends, Cruz certainly would’ve made rightwing media hit man Andrew Breitbart, who died in March 2012, bust his brass buttons in pride.

Ironically, the only other sanctified figure at CPAC aside from Ronald Reagan is Andrew Breitbart, who will be feted in at least two tributes scheduled for the conservative convocation this week. Cruz’s genuflections to the kind of wingnut tropes Breitbart once exploited full measure – like the anti-war movement was "not anti-war, but a Saul Alinsky organizing tool to get Barack Obama elected … the very definition of un-American" (Breitbart said this in his own CPAC speech shortly before his death) – have won him the honor of SVIP (Super Very Important Person) at this year’s event.

Andrew Breitbart at 2012 CPAC
Andrew Breitbart at 2012 CPAC

There is always one or more SVIP at every CPAC, and to know who they are is to know the zeitgeist of the conservative movement at that moment in time. After 12 years of attending CPACs, this writer can safely say that not one of them was ever on the verge of a course correction in favor of a national security policy that would bring us back to our constitutional moorings, nor recognized, as Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared in 1961: "that only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."

No, Cruz joins a pantheon of recent CPAC "closers" including Sarah Palin, who once said military servicemembers have more virtue and honor than the rest of us, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, former U.S Rep. Allen West — a notorious Islamophobe whose military career was ended shortly after he was charged with assault for shooting his gun next to the head of an Iraqi prisoner — and Newt Gingrich, who once declared a "world war" on Islam.

One foray into the CPAC exhibit hall, which is always teeming with earnest college kids and activists alongside generations of GOP operatives, political parasites and single-issue pitchmen, and one realizes fairly quickly that these are the speakers CPAC wants. In fact, not much has changed since the first post-9/11 CPAC in 2002. From the start, the terror attacks have served as the prism for all international issues, heightening all the reactionary xenophobic and nationalistic impulses coursing just below the surface.

Liz Cheney at CPAC 2010
Liz Cheney at CPAC 2010

This can be found in a long list of CPAC speakers – the redder the meat, the better. When Liz "waterboard ’em" Cheney spoke at the 2010 event, for example, she got standing ovations for suggesting we need to "give thanks and praise" to CIA agents who subjected Guantanamo Bay detainees to so-called harsh interrogation techniques, and complained that Obama didn’t support torture enough.

"(Obama) needs to stop apologizing for this great nation and start defending her," she cried, her father’s voice hinting at the edges of her own oratory inflections.

Five years earlier, CPAC was busy defending the Bush/Cheney war in Iraq, and put on a great show to suggest that Bush’s re-election the previous fall was a ratification of his war policies. To illustrate this, CPAC gave an award to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth for smearing Democrat John Kerry’s Vietnam service, and elaborately feted "the Swifties" at its annual Ronald Reagan dinner (see video here).

At the time, the growing insurgency in Iraq, the abuse of detainees at Guantanamo, the messy occupation — was never an issue among these movement conservatives. Forget the Patriot Act – no one wanted to talk about that. Despite the war imploding overseas and its correlating abuses at home, it was all about celebrating political victory for Republicans in Washington.

"For many movement conservatives, the last decade was the only time in their lives that the party they supported controlled all branches of government, and I suspect that this causes many of them to perceive the 2000s as a much better period for the country and for their ideas than it was," said Daniel Larison, foreign policy writer and senior contributor to The American Conservative magazine, in response to an email.

"That in turn encourages the sort of uncritical acceptance of pro-war arguments that were so prevalent on the right in the 2000s and later, because these arguments have become ingrained as part of the conservative movement’s identity and its understanding of itself."

Of course, no tale of CPAC can ignore the tremendous attempts to change this dynamic by young libertarians in the last few years. Unfortunately, all the energy in this regard was tied to one man — former presidential candidate and Rep. Ron Paul, R-TX, who, to the movement’s consternation, became a SVIP in his own right. In successful stagecraft not seen in years, if ever, the Campaign for Liberty, which was founded by Paul in 2008, saturated the premises in 2010 and 2011 with young libertarians touting a new (at least for CPAC) antiwar message. When Paul took the stage in 2010 they out-cheered any grumbling from the rightwing kids as he said things like "there’s nothing wrong with being a conservative and (coming) up with a conservative belief in foreign policy where we have a strong national defense and we don’t go to war so carelessly."

He won the vaunted CPAC Straw Poll then and in 2011, too. That year, the Campaign for Liberty students packed the ballroom enough to boo and heckle Bush Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as he was getting a CPAC award and call Dick Cheney a murderer too. It was unprecedented. But it turned out to be fleeting. Campaign for Liberty pulled back in 2012 and Ron Paul skipped the program as well. There were only a handful of panel discussions even broaching the issue of libertarian-conservative approaches to war that year.

This time, Campaign for Liberty, according to a spokesperson reached at their Virginia offices, won’t be there at all.

Angela Keaton contemplating the jihad threat at the 2012 CPAC (credit: Jim Bovard)
Angela Keaton contemplating the jihad threat at the 2012 CPAC (credit: Jim Bovard)

Looking at the 2013 schedule, the prospects for any such debate are drearier than ever. A source who has led some attempts to broaden the national security discussion at CPAC tells Antiwar that it’s become even harder to get panels and speakers approved who are empathetic to the cause of a more restrained military policy — it’s as though organizers are purging all remnants of those Paul years for fear of another scourge.

So why should we care? Well, CPAC and movement conservatives hold tremendous sway over elections and fundraising, and usually craft the memes and set the tone for how candidates talk and who they pander to on the campaign trail. And it’s a heck of a galvanizing event. If CPAC is still married to the neoconservatism that brought us 10 years of war, then there is very little chance anti-war conservatism is going to get a voice in the Republican Party anytime soon.

Perhaps Rand Paul, who is now a speculative 2016 presidential hopeful, might be able to confront the status quo on this front, said Larison.

"I think Sen. Paul has an opportunity to challenge and reject some of the hard-liners’ arguments, and it’s possible that he has enough goodwill with some movement activists that he can bring them along towards the ‘more restrained foreign policy’ he outlined at (the Heritage Foundation)," Larison told Antiwar.

"Unfortunately, in the same speech he has to some extent endorsed the idea that anti-jihadism can serve as the glue to bring different conservative factions together on foreign policy. This may enable him to receive a hearing from attendees at the conference and elsewhere, but it introduces a worrisome contradiction into his argument for restraint and risks legitimizing alarmist arguments about the scale of current foreign threats."

Meanwhile, Ted Cruz has no such contradictions to speak of, having represented the neoconservative wing of the movement so brilliantly in recent weeks.

On Sunday he will no doubt hit all the right notes for CPAC, chest thumping and bloviating to the admiration of a thousand twenty-somethings, their eyes shining in anticipation of another conflict in the Middle East. After all, isn’t that what they came for?

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.