Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry speak to CPAC, as conservatives call for unity

On the first day of the annual convention of conservative activists, the losers had their moment.

“Running for president of the United States,” said Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who dropped out of the race earlier this year, “is really one series of humiliations after another.”

“I had certain ideas about putting an end to President Obama’s failed administration,” said Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R-Tex.), who dropped out after Bachmann did. “Then the people of Iowa and New Hampshire had a different idea.”

On the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference, three of 2012’s presidential also-rans were on the schedule: Perry, Bachmann and pizza executive Herman Cain. By mid-afternoon, both Perry and Bachmann had used the moment both to poke fun at themselves and to re-assert themselves as something more than failures.

Bachmann gave a speech about foreign policy, blaming Obama for failing to adequately support Israel -- and for permitting the “Arab Spring” to overthrow governments friendly to the United States.

“Obama failed to stand by Mubarak, and that helped lead to the revolution in Egypt,” Bachmann said. And, she said, “Before Obama was elected, Tunisia was a stable U.S. partner. No more.”

Perry’s speech, a couple of hours later, covered a broader range of subjects--saying he would hold true to the limited-government philosophy that had propelled him into the presidential race. He cited a saying from his alma mater, Texas A&M University: “Aggies never lose. We just run out of time.”

“So you could say that my presidential campaign just ran out of time,” Perry said. In this case, that was not technically true: Perry suspended his own campaign after just the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, with 48 states to go.

Perry also took what sounded like a shot at one of the remaining presidential contenders, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

“We need to stop pretending that the main goal of Republican governance is to do the same thing as Democrats, but just don’t spend so much money,” Perry said, without naming Romney. Perry has endorsed former House speaker Newt Gingrich. “We can’t tinker our way to victory.”

This conference began with the conservative movement divided between tea party activists and old-line Republicans, and split between four presidential candidates.

Another speaker, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), stressed the importance of choosing a Republican who can defeat Obama in the fall, again without mentioning Romney’s name.

“Now we must decide if we are prepared to...recede and become just like everybody else,” or remain distinctively American, Rubio said. “And that is the choice. It’s not a choice between someone we like and someone we don’t like.”

In many of the conference’s first sessions, speakers talked about unity (“The trick is to stay together,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) And they used apocalyptic imagery to talk about the risks of re-electing Obama.

“We are on the precipice of an abyss,” said Colin Hanna, president of the group Let Freedom Ring.

For Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), the key metaphor wasn’t a cliff. It was a book. And the decision was whether to stop writing it: “The decision to end this great story we call America.... Close the book, or turn the page. The choice is ours.”

For Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), it wasn’t a book. It was a hole, dug by a government that piled up debt. “America is not destined to become a decaying city in a hole, but rather a shining city on the hill,” Lee said. “It’s time for members of Congress to put down their shovels, and walk away from their hole-digging hell.”

For Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), the right metaphor for the country’s troubles wasn’t a cliff or a book or a hole. It was something far more humble.

A low-flow toilet.

King, a tea party favorite, described his efforts to avoid government mandates designed to help the environment. He bought old-style lightbulbs to replace the curly compact fluorescents that House janitors installed in his office. He tore out the special showerhead, which saved water but extended his showers from three to 12 minutes. And he raged at his toilet, outfitted to save water with smaller flushes.

“We are a nation of double-flushers!” King said, comparing the regulators who imposed these orders to the East German secret police, the Stasi. “I want my liberty back!”

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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