Most of the speakers urged Republicans not to change but rather to double down on conservative principles. They included keynote speaker Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), a leader of the new generation of Republicans whom McCain recently labeled “wacko birds.”
“If standing for liberty and standing for the Constitution means you’re a wacko bird, then count me a proud wacko bird,” Cruz said Saturday. “I think there are more than a few other wacko birds gathered here today.”
Cruz also argued that the party’s new generation is starting to gain traction, pointing to Sen. Rand Paul — who had just won the CPAC straw poll — and his 13-hour filibuster this month against President Obama’s drone program, along with the spending cuts contained in the sequester that took effect at the start of the month.
“For the last three weeks, conservatives have been winning,” Cruz said.
The discord, while not new, is particularly noteworthy as the party seeks its way forward after a disappointing 2012 election.
Republican officials unhappy with their losses have begun to push for a new core message and changes or moderation on social issues and illegal immigration.
Two recent events have inflamed that debate. First was the launch of a new group headed by Rove that seeks to recruit and nominate more electable Republican candidates, which conservatives see as a veiled attempt to elect less-conservative Republicans. Second was Paul’s filibuster, which earned the ire of foreign policy hawks such as McCain and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).
McCain has since apologized for his “wacko birds” comment, but he was booed several times at CPAC.
The speakers at CPAC were united against the McCain and Rove element in the party, picking on them repeatedly and suggesting that conservative principles would win the day if the party stuck with them.
“We do know deep down, as Ronald Reagan did, that we don’t have to change because . . . we know that we’re right and they’re wrong,” said David Keene, the president of the National Rifle Association and the former chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been a frequent critic of Rove’s new Conservative Victory Project, urged Republicans not to change their principles but instead propose new ideas.
“The Republican establishment is just plain wrong about how it approaches politics,” Gingrich said. “The Republican consulting class is just plain wrong about how it approaches politics.”