The most important moment at CPAC that no one noticed

Rick Perry, Chris Christie and, sadly, Donald Trump drew most of the headlines during the first two days of the CPAC, an annual conservative confab held just outside of the nation's capitol.  But, the most important moment as it relates to the future of the Republican party didn't come in a speech from a big name Republican thinking about running for president in 2016. It came on a panel about criminal justice reform.

While it was sandwiched between several other, better attended sessions, the discussion of Republican progress on reforming the broken criminal justice system -- a discussion that included Perry as well as anti-tax activist Grover Norquist -- laid out a future-looking policy pathway for a party that desperately needs them.

On issues of sentencing reform and prison recidivism, Republicans -- especially several governors in southern states -- have been leaders, earning praise from prison reform groups from both sides of the aisle for efforts to save money by implementing rehabilitation programs and curbing skyrocketing prison costs. In fact, a non-partisan study issued last year about how Massachusetts, which is undisputed as one of the bluest states in the union, could cut prison costs, credited Republican-led states with how they've tackled prison reform.

That's why -- more so than the many practice-runs of stump speeches by 2016 hopefuls delivered in front of a friendly crowd -- the criminal justice discussion at CPAC is supremely important if the GOP's stated desire to re-brand is for real. "This is our chance to show we can provide solutions to effect significant problems," said Norquist, who along with the rest of the panel laid out an argument for why criminal justice reform should be a prominent conservative cause.

The renewed focus on enacted cost-saving criminal justice and sentencing reform marks a dramatic, decade-long shift by Republican governors, many of whom previously won election by stumping on tough-on-crime platforms. As many Republican governors have noted, a way to cut state costs is to decrease the number of people being locked up for non-violent offenses and ridding the law books of mandatory minimum sentences for those offenses.

Prominent Republicans who once trumpeted tough-on-crime stances now calling for sentencing changes and rehabilitation programs for drug and other non-violent offenders include Perry, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich. This year, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has made calls for mandatory minimum reform a major focus. "We're not a soft on crime state, ya know what I'm saying?... We're tough on crime," Perry said. "But I hope we are also seen as a smart on crime state."

While the GOP has signaled that it plans to stick to anti-Obama (and anti-Obamcare) messaging during the runup to the November midterms, governors like Perry and Christie certainly have a point. As 2016 approaches, the GOP would be wise to push a more solutions-oriented messaging and criminal justice reform may be the place to start.

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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