Updated at 8:20 p.m.
The Americans for Prosperity Foundation and Citizens United labeled their inaugural Freedom Summit — held Saturday in Manchester, N.H. — a 2016 “cattle call." However, the event proved most useful in reminding us how far away the presidential primaries are, and how much Republicans will need to decide before the Iowa caucuses.
After the 2012 presidential election, the GOP performed an audit on its electoral performance and announced it might have to change some things if it wanted to attract more votes in four years. Two years later, not much has changed. Most Republican elected officials have not softened their stance on social issues, and attempts to reach other demographics haven't changed the party's base.
Based on how things unfolded at the Freedom Summit, many Republicans are perfectly content to continue appealing to the same base that turned out in the 2012 primaries — the most passionate and conservative fringe of the party — without worrying about the potential voters they've left out.
The crowd laughed at jokes about Obamacare, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee noted that sometimes he feels like North Korea is more free than the United States. Donald Trump said that President Obama must have been incensed when Zach Galifianakis asked him if he were from Kenya. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz cried out about abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and was met with cheers. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte wondered what Daniel Webster would have thought of Lois Lerner and the IRS. None of these ideas are novel. They're painfully easy ways to excite a group of people the Republican Party never had to worry about losing.
Despite the familiar themes of much of this weekend's event, the speakers most whispered about in conversations about 2016 were clearly thinking about how wider appeal could benefit them in the near future — especially Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
Paul's speech seemed to be a carefully constructed proof of how the Republican Party can "hit those who haven't been listening" without diluting its message, a proposition that seems impossible but is essential for candidates who want to please the unforgiving tea party and far right, whose members are certain to turn out at every primary. Unsurprisingly, his prescription for how to move the party forward includes adopting his ideas on civil liberties — a renewed focus on privacy in light of the National Security Agency leaks and distance from the drug war and mandatory minimum sentences, which he told the audience would help the party appeal to the young minorities most likely to receive jail time for drug possession.
"Your kids and grandkids aren't perfect either” Paul said. “The police don’t come to your neighborhoods. You get a better lawyer. These are some injustices. We’ve got to be concerned about people who may not be part of our group, who may not be here today.” Paul also talked about how his ideas about how to help the unemployed have resonated with twentysomethings on the right and the left.
These lines did not receive as much applause as his remark that the GOP “cannot be the party of fat cats, rich people and Wall Street," but it's a refrain he is likely to repeat in the future.
Ted Cruz also briefly mentioned how the party could appeal to minorities and single mothers who have suffered during the recession, and he cast his economic platform under the labels of "growth and opportunity," the lingo now favored by Republicans who want to counter the left's focus on income inequality. These ideas received much less praise than Cruz's call to abolish the IRS.
Despite the gentle prodding from Paul and Cruz, much more time during the Freedom Summit was devoted to bashing Republicans who were not present for abandoning stances the tea party holds dear. When Trump blasted former Florida governor Jeb Bush for saying illegal immigration could be an act of love, the crowd booed and shook their heads. When several speakers mentioned Common Core — another policy supported by Bush, a potential presidential candidate favored by the party's more moderate donors — the disdain grew even louder. Trump also criticized Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan for his budget proposal, which would cut Medicare in an effort to balance the federal budget.
Ryan has also been shifting his political reach lately, as Robert Costa reported yesterday, to focus more on poverty than budget wonkery — a similar change in focus and tone to the one Paul and Cruz have been experimenting with. The audience responded far more enthusiastically to condemnation of those not in the room trying to change the party than they did to suggestions for how to improve the GOP's bottom line.
Paul, at least, has refused to join in the denunciation of his fellow party tinkerers. When asked on ABC News yesterday about Bush's comment on immigration, Paul said, "You know, I think he might have been more artful, maybe, in the way he presented this. But I don't want to say, 'Oh, he's terrible for saying this.' If it were me, what I would have said is, people who seek the American dream are not bad people." It fit in with the rest of Paul's routine this weekend — leaving options for the Republican Party to expand, without angering anyone, either.
For a tea party event that felt a lot like a 2012 remake with updated references, it sure did offer quite an array of new ideological options for the Republican Party to choose from.
There is Rand Paul, who has views on civil liberties and foreign policy that are definitely not widely held among the Republican Party writ large. Paul has already won a handful of conservative straw polls and has an early advantage in New Hampshire, a state he has donated much time and money to and that has already vouched support for his dad.
There was the option left unendorsed by the libertarian and tea party-tinged audience, Jeb Bush, who seems an impossible sell in primary states likely to be replete with voters incensed by his views on immigration and education. However, Bush does have an advantage with some of the most influential conservative donors, who are far more worried about the general election than the whims of Republican primary voters.
There is Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who seems intent on turning the "war on women" against the Democratic Party.
And there is Ted Cruz, who would mark a sweeping step to the right for a party that has preferred nominating moderate presidential candidates who were willing to go conservative to win extra love from primary voters.
The GOP also could choose someone completely unknown at this point, another new idea for a party that has held primaries chiefly staffed by presidential campaign experts.
Or, the party could do none of the above. Regardless of the experiments going on among the party's ambitious, the rank and file could continue to laugh and cheer to the party's old jokes and stump speeches. Most of the time, incumbent ideas have as much of an advantage in politics as the politicians who hold them.
"For Hillary Clinton and Boeing, a beneficial relationship" — Rosalind S. Helderman, The New York Times
"Obama Effect Inspiring Few to Seek Office" — Jason Horowitz, The New York Times
Correction: An earlier draft of this article said the Freedom Summit was put on by Americans for Prosperity. It was organized by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization.