CPAC recap: As much talk about big-hatted Pilgrims as the economy

CPAC attendees Thursday heard from Rep. Michele Bachmann, Sen. Mitch McConnell, and Gov. Rick Perry. But the economy wasn't a major CPAC theme.

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012.

After a parade "of Republican politicians including high-flying Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, House Speaker John Boehner, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former "Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Convention (CPAC).

Mr. Cameron spent about 15 minutes tracing the plight of the original Pilgrims, spanning their journey from England to Holland and finally to the United States. His discussion was capped off with a movie trailer for his new film, “Monumental,” coming out in March.

Wait, what’s this about Pilgrims?

All together, CPAC attendees heard roughly as much about America’s big-hatted forefathers as they did about the current state of the American economy.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) spent her speaking slot slamming President Obama for giving the Middle East over to Islamic radicals and turning away from IsraelSenate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky focused on the Democratic party’s cynical political calculations. Governor Perry got resounding applause for his criticism of Mr. Obama’s “war on religion” over contraception.

RELATED: 10 economic protests that changed history

How rapidly the political conversation has changed. Since the Republican presidential candidates hammered Obama over the August jobs report showing the United States generated no new jobs in that month, the unemployment rate has fallen to 8.3 percent from 9.1 percent and the economy has added an average of 183,000 jobs a month. On Thursday, the Labor Department reported that unemployment assistance had fallen to a four year low.
Indeed, Perry harnessed the contempt some conservative – and particularly tea party – Americans feel toward the Wall Street bailouts in an applause line that was every bit as harsh on America’s financiers as the language used by many Democratic politicians.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, “those paying the price are not the large banks who were over-leveraged, not the insurance companies who took on too much risk, not the executives who continued to reap these large bonuses even after the walls came a tumbling down,” Perry boomed. “No. It was people like you and me… Main St., businesses, our children, who stand to inherit the worst financial disaster this country has ever seen. And it’s wrong.” 

Many speakers did briefly check in on the economy, however. 

On a panel about the Arab Spring, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) argued that America needed to bolster its economy for foreign policy purposes.
“The most important mission of the United States is to repair our economy,” Gilmore said. “If we’re going to be prepared to take any kind of action, either economic or military, we’ve got to do something about that. And that means we must dedicate ourselves to the growth of the United States economy in the years ahead.”

Senator Rubio talked only in gauzy terms about the power of the free enterprise system and the importance of entrepreneurship.

Former presidential candidate Herman Cain took a swipe at economic concerns in his speech, accusing the government of deceiving the American people with economic statistics. He even got in a plug for his “9-9-9” plan, urging the audience to promote the plan to candidates before they get into office.
Most powerful – and extensive – on the subject was Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank. Mr. Brooks argued it is time for conservatives “to take back the definition of fairness.”

“Every day we’re building a crushing debt for our kids – that’s not fair,” Brooks said. “We’re creating a tax and regulatory burden on new businesses that makes it impossible for poor people to get ahead on their hard work and merit. That’s not fair. And most unfair of all, in my view, is the special access and bailouts to crony corporations who have clever lobbyists and access to the government. That’s not fair.”

What accounts for a general de-emphasis of economic issues? To some extent, that change rests on issues beyond the control of the Republican presidential candidates and the GOP. Obama’s decision to mandate contraceptive coverage for health-care plans at religious institutions and the overturning of a California law outlawing gay marriage, for example, pushed social issues to the political fore. And that may be no accident, one conservative commentator argued.

“Republicans did not intend to make this a campaign year where social issues were front and center,” said John Gizzi, the political editor at Human Events, a conservative web site.

In the early primary and caucus states from Iowa to Florida, MR. Gizzi said, “the social issues were almost never brought up. I submit to you that they have been injected into the political debate by Barack Obama, not the Democratic Party, but Barack Obama.”

Friday, all the GOP presidential candidates save Texas Rep. Ron Paul (whose son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, spoke Thursday) will take to the stage at CPAC to make their case to the assembled activists and volunteers  – and to the nation at large. More than 1,200 media members are registered to attend CPAC and network TV coverage means the GOP  candidates will have an enormous stage to talk about the economy.

Thursday,, however, such issues took a back seat to pumping up the conservative base with only a salting of economic topics.

RELATED: 10 economic protests that changed history

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