Roam the hallways of this year’s CPAC, and you’d likely have run into any number of right-wing MAGA hallmarks: MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell on the sidelines of “media row” railing against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, fans vying for a selfie with Steven Bannon, and — perhaps most notably — lots and lots of Trump gear.
And yet, while CPAC 2023 was certainly Trump territory, a few of his potential 2024 rivals — Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, Vivek Ramaswamy, and even the lesser-known Perry Johnson — showed up, delivering speeches to a crowd that seemed to be already in the bag for the GOP’s current frontrunner.
The speeches had familiar themes throughout: 2024 Republicans honed in on red-meat content proven to hype up the base. But, while many of their focuses overlapped, the response from attendees was largely muted at the sparsely attended, unusually troubled, annual event. The exception: Trump’s big finale, though even that was delivered to a far-than-packed crowd.
Here were some of the themes that stood out across the whole 2024 field’s speeches.
Battle of the anti-woke: Haley, Pompeo, Trump, and Ramaswamy all leaned into culture war issues during their speeches.
Nikki Haley declared that “wokeness is a virus more dangerous than any pandemic — hands down.” Ramaswamy, the author of “Woke, Inc,” railed against the “new culture of fear in America,” declared the country to be in the midst “of a national identity crisis” and promised to shut down and replace the FBI. Pompeo, meanwhile, once again went after American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten (whom he’s previously declared to be “the most dangerous person in the world).
The event reflected the movement’s increased focus on transgender issues and Trump issued a one-liner that received the loudest applause among 2024 hopefuls: “We will keep men out of women’s sports,” he broadly declared.
China, China, China. As my colleague Dave Weigel recently noted, this year’s CPAC showed that “the danger of the CCP has become an all-consuming issue for the conservative base in a way it simply has not for Democrats.” The subject was mentioned by both Trump and his four rivals throughout the weekend.
“The Declaration of Independence of today is our declaration of independence from China,” Ramaswamy said on Friday, prompting some cheers from the room. “If Thomas Jefferson were alive today, that is the Declaration of Independence he would sign.”
Even Johnson, who largely stuck to his “Two-Cents Plan to Save America” during his short speech on stage, managed to toss in an anti-China line that briefly revved up attendees.
Law-and-order. Both Haley and Trump argued that they’d be best suited to bring down crime and improve border security throughout the country.
“Once we make America proud, we will make America strong. And this starts by bringing back law and order. In my administration, police and border patrol will know that we have their backs, and criminals and illegal immigrants will know we have their number!” Haley said.
The former president detailed sweeping policy proposals, like signing a “reconciliation bill … for a massive increase in border patrol,” promising to undergo “the largest domestic deportation operation in American history,” and sending in “federal assets” to cities experiencing high crime.
“My administration will crack down on these out-of-control monsters, young though they may be, and impose tough consequences on juvenile criminals,” Trump added.
Spending. During his speech on Friday, Pompeo attacked overspending in both parties, pointing to a rare area where Republican 2024 candidates may look to attack Trump.
“[The] Trump administration — the administration I served — added $8 trillion in new debt,” Pompeo told attendees. “This is indecent and can’t continue. Earning back that trust will be hard work. It won’t just be a campaign speech.”
Haley also contrasted spending policies during her CPAC speech, though she focused more on President Joe Biden’s time in office and made one comment about how “some Republicans” have helped with the efforts. Later in the weekend, however, Haley tied the argument to Trump more directly during a speech at a private donor retreat hosted by Club for Growth.
“Here’s the truth,” Haley said during that speech, according to a copy provided to Semafor. “Lots of Republican politicians love spending and wasting taxpayer money almost as much as Democrats. The last two Republican presidents added more than $10 trillion to the national debt. Think about that. A third of our debt happened under just two Republicans.”
Still, Trump’s opponents (and potential rivals) appeared reluctant to directly go after the former president, continuing a months-long effort by various teams to beat Trump without necessarily targeting him.
Trump versus the GOP. The former president took pains to separate himself from much of his own party, vowing to run against the “globalist” faction of the Republican Party and declaring that voters want “America First” candidates (such as himself).
“We had a Republican Party that was ruled by freaks, neocons, globalists, open border zealots, and fools, but we are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and Jeb Bush,” Trump said, adding that “people are tired of RINOs and globalists. They want to see America First.”
Trump told the crowd that they would not return to leaders “that want to destroy our great Social Security system,” raise the age for retirement benefits, and cut Medicare. It was the latest sign of his campaign’s offensive against potential rivals’ past support for entitlement cuts, especially DeSantis.
In an opinion piece published by The Washington Post, contributing columnist Jim Geraghty argued that CPAC has lost its status as “a don’t-miss annual gathering of Republican leadership and anyone who aspired to it.” This year, he describes the event as “a circus” that is “indistinguishable from one of Trump’s campaign rallies” – and therefore perhaps less relevant to the less-MAGA sects of the Republican party.