Just five years ago, the Conservative Political Action Conference still had a Doris Day feel, like a time warp to 1978, when everyone was still filled with nostalgia for 1961. Pat Boone was the musical act, and he played before a screen that showed flapping flags, rhyming the word “God” with the word “God.” It was an old stale act.
This year, I have seen several attendees with earlobe-stretching hoops, and Gary Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, got rousing applause from the main hall for declaring, “Legalize marijuana.” When Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, two icons of old conservatism, came out before the crowd on Thursday, they faced jeers of “draft dodger” and “war criminal” and a staged walkout by dozens of participants.
The reason for this shift won’t even appear in the main hall until 3:30 p.m. on Friday. Ron Paul is a star here, even when he doesn’t show up. When Rep. Paul Ryan, the head of the budget committee came out Thursday, he tried to connect with the youthful crowd by name dropping the superstar. “I understand that there are some Ron Paul fans here,” he said. “I’m the other Paul.”
The most electric moment of Thursday’s event was Donald Trump’s improvised comeback to hooting Paul supporters. “By the way, Ron Paul can’t get elected. I’m sorry,” Trump said. On Friday morning, Brian Baker, of Taxpayers Against Earmarks sparked an eruption of boos and cheers when he noted an earmark Paul had requested $2.5 million for, among other things, street lighting in Baytown, Texas. For many of the young attendees, this was heresy.
Last year, Paul won the CPAC presidential straw poll by nine points, with 31 percent of the ballots. Paul is likely to do well again this year. Though Trump is right–Paul is unlikely to ever be president–it is just as true to say that because of Paul, the conservative movement will never be the same.