Donald Trump has not always been a hero at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering that’s something of a Woodstock for the right-leaning faithful. In years past he’s faced polite applause, silence, and even scattered boos from a crowd that suspected he wasn’t truly one of them.
What a difference a victory makes. On Friday President Trump was welcomed to CPAC 2017 as a conqueror home from the political wars. More than a few pundits remarked that given Mr. Trump’s reception the group should be renamed “TPAC,” with Trump’s name in the title.
“Big thing Trump proved with his unlikely wins is that ideology doesn’t matter anymore in politics. #CPAC2017 speech proving that,” tweeted ABC Political Director Rick Klein as Trump addressed the crowd at the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center in Oxon Hill, Md.
How conservatives moved toward Trump – and vice versa
In truth, CPAC has never been as doctrinaire as its reputation. It has always had a range of speakers, in the sense of ranging from Ronald Reagan-like small government conservatives to more moderate Republican political figures. And in some ways conservatism and Trump have been moving in each other’s direction in recent years.
Take immigration. In 2013 the Republican National Committee produced its famous “autopsy” that recommended immigration reform and more outreach to women and minority voters. That year a number of CPAC speakers hinted at a bipartisan effort to craft immigration reform glittering in the near distance.
That was an attitude the conservative faithful did not go for. They bolted from the establishment view toward Trump’s tougher, more nationalistic immigration position.
In 2013, Trump decried a path to amnesty for undocumented immigrants because “every one of those 11 million people will be voting Democratic.” In 2017, as president, Trump thrilled the crowd with his promise to kick out undocumented “criminals ... gang leaders, drug dealers” and others who deserve it while, yes, building the wall.
“We’ve defended other nations’ borders while leavings ours wide open,” Trump said.
Trump’s also moved toward CPAC consensus on entitlements. Or at least, he has if his past CPAC speeches are compared to Friday’s version. In 2013, Trump surprised the audience by defending the nation’s big, expensive social programs from cuts.
“As Republicans, if you think you’re going to change very substantially for the worse Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security in any substantial way and at the same time you think you’re going to win elections, it just really is not going to happen,” Trump said four years ago.
That was then, this is now. One of Speaker Paul Ryan’s visions is turning these programs into block grants to make their budget effects more predictable – and cheaper. A Medicaid block grant might be a big part of the forthcoming repeal-and-replace effort on Obamacare. This year, Trump didn’t bring up entitlements at all. Instead he replaced it with a sure applause line about red ink.
“We inherited a national debt that’s doubled in eight years,” Trump said.
Next year's speech
Trump promised to come back to CPAC in 2018 – and the year after that, and so forth down the line.
It will be interesting to see how next year’s speech compares. By then, Trump and the congressional GOP may have had to make hard choices on repealing Obamacare, tax reform, and other tough issues. Not all of those choices may meet with conservatives’ approval.
But for now Trump was still able to make a speech that overall was simply an extension of his 2016 campaign – or a preview of his 2020 effort. He could promise a fabulous Obamacare replacement, an end to illegal immigration, rebuilt inner cities, and jobs “pouring back into our country.”