In 1974, California Governor Ronald Reagan addressed a new conference of insurgent conservatives. But before he jumped into what would become one of his most famous speeches, his outline of his vision of the nation as “man’s last hope” and “city on a hill,” he introduced a young navy pilot who had recently been released from a North Vietnamese prison.
As the crowd gave the 37-year-old John McCain a storm of applause, Reagan laughed.
“Well, I could sit down,” he said. “I can’t do anything better than this for the rest of the evening.”
This point deserves some disclosure today as conservatives convene for the annual Conservative political action conference. The event bears little resemblance to glorifying the future president and future senator, who both had careers defined by supporting aggressive US intervention abroad.
The morning after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded neighboring Ukraine, at least one conference speaker used the podium to criticize Democratic President Biden for distracting himself with a crisis in a place that Americans don’t need to worry about. Others on the conference agenda made remarks that appeared to express sympathy for Russia. On Saturday, activists will hear from Donald Trump, who called Putin a “genius” this week.
This is not the first time CPAC has revealed how far the Republican Party has come in the Trump era. In 2018, when McCain was suffering from terminal brain cancer, the CPAC crowd booed when Trump mentioned the senator’s name in a speech.
But the conference’s evolution from its intellectual roots to rabid populism continues to anger and upset many on the right.
“CPAC has always been a place where conservatives get together and discuss ideas,” said Heath Mayo, organizer of the Alternative Conservative Caucus, which is taking place this weekend in Washington, DC. “And that’s not it anymore.
Most Republican members of Congress have adhered to the traditional conservative line — condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while criticizing Biden for not taking faster action to impose sanctions.
But while there has been much criticism of Biden’s alleged weakness, there are several speakers at CPAC this year who have taken a completely non-Reagan stance. (Two of the most prominent GOP hawks—former Vice President Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, Trump’s former UN ambassador—did not attend.)
Charlie Kirk, a conservative activist, said in his speech: “The southern border of the United States is of much greater importance than the border with Ukraine.” He added: “I’m more concerned about how the cartels are deliberately trying to infiltrate our country than there is conflict 5,000 miles away, in cities we can’t pronounce and places most Americans can’t find on a map.”
Other speakers include Candice Owens, a popular podcast host who this week encouraged her three million Twitter followers to read Putin’s remarks about Ukraine “to know what *really* is going on.” Tulsi Gabbard, a former Democratic congresswoman who has received support from the right, tweeted: “This war and suffering could have been easily avoided if the Biden/NATO administration had simply acknowledged Russia’s legitimate security concerns.”
It would be a mistake to conclude that statements like this represent a majority of Republicans, said Queen Hillier, a longtime conservative columnist.
“It’s not as widespread as it is loud,” Hillier said. “The real discussion among conservatives is about how to react, not about whether to sympathize with the Russians.” He pointed to a poll suggesting that Republican voters are more anti-Putin than commonly believed.
Jeffrey Kabaservis, a Republican Party historian, said some conservatives are thrilled to “cheer Putin up when he’s destroying the liberal order and making all those smartass experts cry.”
“Tulsi Gabbard may believe in a lot of things that the CPAC crowd doesn’t, but they love her drive to destroy – and that leans them all towards the anti-anti-Putin line,” he added.
Matt Schlapp, head of the American Conservative Union, which runs the conference, defended the conference as a platform for diverse points of view. But he said he preferred to single out non-establishment voices.
February 24, 2022, 7:00 pm ET
“Nobody here came up to me and said, ‘Why isn’t Mitt Romney talking?’” Schlapp said, referring to the Utah senator and Republican nominee in 2012. “I see no reason why I would want him on stage.” I don’t consider him a constructive voice.
“No one here thinks that John McCain should reincarnate and give a speech at CPAC,” he added, though he said he respects his military record.
“Everything is fair.”
Despite all the criticism of CPAC, efforts to develop an alternative forum remain in their infancy.
This weekend, 450 conservatives will gather in Washington, D.C. as organizers announce the anti-CPACPrinciples First Conference.
The goal is to go back to the days when conservatives discussed and inspired young activists, said Mayo, the group’s 31-year-old founder. “They respected differences and arguments.” They got up on stage and started arguing. That’s why we followed them, “he said.
And while this isn’t an overtly anti-Trump rally, the anti-Trump vibe is impossible to ignore. In the 2016 presidential primaries, Mayo endorsed Marco Rubio, a hawkish senator from Florida. The keynote speakers are Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, both Republicans who have been denounced by the party for their involvement in a congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. Both were ardent supporters of Ukraine.
Roger Zackheim, Washington director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, said “reasonable people might disagree” about the direction of the Republican Party and noted that Reagan himself often faced attacks from his right wing.
But he urged Republicans to reconnect with Reagan’s foreign policy ideas, which he reduced to two fundamental principles: “Freedom will never be gone for more than a generation.” “You have to fight for it” and “peace through force”.
The more discussion and disagreement, the merrier, Hillier said. “Now Trump is not our flag bearer. “We don’t have a national flag bearer,” he said. “So everything is fair.
What to read in the evening
For the latest updates on the rapidly changing situation in Ukraine, follow along with our live blog.
Placed on the opinion table audio roundtable about the Russian invasion of Ukraine with commentary by Ross Dautat, Frank Bruni, Farah Stockman, and host Lulu Garcia-Navarro.
Lara Jakes, Eric Schmitt, and Edward Wong A preview of what might happen next in the Ukrainian crisis, from cyberattacks to refugee flows and economic upheavals.
Prior to the invasion, polls showed that Americans feared serious US involvement in Ukraine.
It is still too early to know exactly how the Americans are reacting to the Russian invasion. But opinion polls leading up to the conflict showed voters are clearly divided about how far the United States should go to support Ukraine and what price it is willing to bear.
Understand Russia’s Attack on Ukraine:
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What is at the heart of this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine a part of its natural sphere of influence and is unnerved by Ukraine’s proximity to the West and the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO or the European Union. Although Ukraine is not part of either, it receives financial and military assistance from the US and Europe.
Are these frictions just beginning now? Antagonism between the two countries has simmered since 2014, when Russian troops crossed into Ukraine after an uprising in Ukraine replaced a Russian-friendly president with a pro-Western government. Then, Russia annexed Crimea and inspired a separatist movement in the east. A ceasefire was signed in 2015 but fighting continued.
How did Ukraine react? On February 23, Ukraine declared a state of emergency for 30 days when cyberattacks took out state institutions. After the attacks began, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law. The foreign minister called the attacks a “full-scale invasion” and called on the world to “stop Putin.”
Overall, 52 percent of Americans said the US should play a “minor role” in the situation in Ukraine, 26 percent supported a “major role” and 20 percent were in favor of not playing at all. The poll ended on Monday at the Associated Press-NORC Public Affairs Research Center.
In a surprising indicator of how foreign policy attitudes have changed over the past few decades, Democrats are slightly more likely than Republicans to say that the US should play a major role in the conflict. Republican firm Echelon Research found a similar split: 56 percent of Democrats believe the US has a moral responsibility to defend Ukraine, compared to 31 percent of Republicans.
Recent polls have found few signs that the public is ready to support Biden during the international crisis. Only 43 percent of voters approved of his attitude towards Russia. Reuters poll The tally accurately reflected his overall approval rating, suggesting that attitudes towards his treatment of Russia may reflect general attitudes towards his presidency more than any specific views on his foreign policy.
The polls were conducted prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and should be interpreted with caution. The data obtained is only a basic measure of what public opinion was like before the conflict, and attitudes can change rapidly with new developments and constant media coverage. It may be a few more days before most pollsters complete polls that have been conducted in their entirety since the Russian invasion.
Still, the poll hints at some political risks for the Biden administration.
A Reuters poll found that only about half of Americans supported sanctions against Russia if that meant higher gas prices, which is likely, although more than two-thirds of voters said they supported tougher sanctions overall.
Even before any economic fallout from the conflict, most voters gave Biden bad ratings for his handling of the economy, inflation, and gas prices. Voters rated inflation and the economy as the most important questions facing the biggest challenges facing the country in polls conducted over the past few months.
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