CPAC: From ‘City Upon a Hill’ to ‘Anti-Anti-Putin’

In 1974, Gov. Ronald Reagan of California addressed a new conference of insurgent conservatives. But before he jumped into what would become one of his most famous speeches, laying out his vision of the nation as “the last best hope of man” and “a city upon a hill,” he introduced a young Navy pilot who had been recently released from a North Vietnamese prison.

As the crowd gave the 37-year-old John McCain a rousing standing ovation, Reagan chuckled.

“Well, I might as well sit down,” he said. “I can’t do any better than that for the remainder of the evening.”

The moment deserves some unpacking today, as conservatives gather for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. It’s an event that bears little resemblance to the one that celebrated the future president and the future senator, who both went on to careers defined by support for aggressive U.S. intervention overseas.

On the morning after President Vladimir Putin of Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine, at least one speaker at the conference used the platform to criticize President Biden, a Democrat, as distracted by a crisis in a place Americans need not care about. Others on the conference’s agenda have made remarks that seem to sympathize with Russia. On Saturday, activists will hear from Donald Trump, who this week hailed Putin as a “genius.”

It’s not the first time that CPAC has revealed how far the Republican Party has traveled in the Trump era. In 2018, as McCain was suffering from terminal brain cancer, a CPAC crowd booed when Trump mentioned the senator’s name in a speech.

But the conference’s evolution from its intellectual roots to ardent populism continues to anger and sadden many on the right.

“CPAC was always a place where conservatives got together and debated ideas,” said Heath Mayo, the organizer of an alternate conservative gathering taking place in Washington, D.C., this weekend. “And that’s just not what it is anymore.”

Most Republican members of Congress have hewed to a traditional conservative line — condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while criticizing Biden for not acting more swiftly to impose sanctions.

But while there was plenty of criticism of Biden’s alleged weakness, this year’s CPAC features a number of speakers who have taken a starkly un-Reaganesque position. (Two of the Republican Party’s most prominent hawks — the former vice president, Mike Pence, and Nikki Haley, a former U.N. ambassador under Trump — did not attend.)

Charlie Kirk, a conservative activist, said in his speech, “The U.S. southern border matters a lot more than the Ukrainian border.” He added: “I’m more worried about how the cartels are deliberately trying to infiltrate our country than a dispute 5,000 miles away, cities we can’t pronounce, places that most Americans can’t find on a map.”

Other speakers include Candace Owens, a popular podcast host who this week urged her three million Twitter followers to read Putin’s remarks on Ukraine “to know what’s *actually* going on.” Tulsi Gabbard, a former Democratic congresswoman who has gained a following on the right, said on Twitter: “This war and suffering could have easily been avoided if Biden Admin/NATO had simply acknowledged Russia’s legitimate security concerns.”

It would be a mistake to infer that such remarks represent a majority of Republicans, said Quin Hillyer, a longtime conservative commentator.

“It is not as widespread as it is loud,” Hillyer said. “The real debate among conservatives is about how to react rather than whether to sympathize with the Russians.” He pointed to polling suggesting that Republican voters are more anti-Putin than is widely assumed.

Geoffrey Kabaservice, a historian of the Republican Party, said some conservatives are enthralled by “cheering on Putin as he wrecks the liberal order and makes all those smarty-pants experts cry.”

“Tulsi Gabbard may believe in a lot of things the CPAC crowd does not, but they love her appetite for destruction — and that inclines all of them toward an anti-anti-Putin line,” he added.

Matt Schlapp, the head of the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC, defended the conference as a platform for a variety of viewpoints. But he said that he preferred to highlight non-establishment voices.

“Nobody here has walked up to me and said, ‘Why isn’t Mitt Romney speaking?’” Schlapp said, referring to the Utah senator and 2012 Republican nominee. “I don’t see any reason why I’d have him on the stage. I don’t find him to be a constructive voice.”

“Nobody here is thinking that John McCain should be reincarnated and give a speech at CPAC,” he added, though he said he respected his war record.

For all the criticism of CPAC, efforts to develop an alternative forum remain embryonic.

This weekend, 450 conservatives are gathering in Washington, D.C., for what organizers are billing as the anti-CPAC, the Principles First conference.

The goal is to get back to the days when conservatives debated and inspired young activists, said Mayo, the group’s 31-year-old founder. “They respected disagreements and arguments. They got up onstage and made arguments. That is why we followed them,” he said.

And while it’s not explicitly an anti-Trump gathering, the anti-Trump vibe is impossible to ignore. In the 2016 presidential primary, Mayo supported Marco Rubio, the hawkish Florida senator. The headline speakers are Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, both Republicans who were censured by the party for their involvement in the congressional committee that is investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. Both have been vocal supporters of Ukraine.

Roger Zakheim, the Washington director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, said that “reasonable people can disagree” about the direction of the Republican Party, and noted that Reagan himself often faced attacks from his right flank.

But he urged Republicans to reconnect with Reagan’s foreign policy ideas, which he boiled down to two fundamental principles: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. It must be fought for” and “peace through strength.”

The more discussion and disagreement, the merrier, said Hillyer. “Right now, Trump is not our standard-bearer. We do not have a national standard-bearer,” he said. “So everything is fair game.”

  • For the latest updates on the fast-moving situation in Ukraine, following along with our Live coverage.

  • The Opinion desk hosted an audio roundtable on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with commentary from Ross Douthat, Frank Bruni, Farah Stockman and its host, Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

  • Lara Jakes, Eric Schmitt and Edward Wong preview what might happen next in the Ukraine crisis, from cyberattacks to refugee flows to economic turbulence.

pulse

It’s too early to know precisely how Americans are reacting to Russia’s invasion. But public opinion surveys in the run-up to the conflict found voters clearly divided over just how far the United States should go to support Ukraine — and what costs they would be willing to bear.

Overall, 52 percent of Americans said that the U.S. should have a “minor role,” in the situation in Ukraine, while 26 percent supported a “major role” and 20 percent argued for no role at all, according to a survey completed Monday by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

In a surprising marker of how foreign policy views have shifted over the last several decades, Democrats were somewhat likelier than Republicans to say that the U.S. should have a major role in the conflict. A Republican firm, Echelon Research, found a similar split: 56 percent of Democrats thought the U.S. had a moral responsibility to protect Ukraine, compared to just 31 percent of Republicans.

Recent surveys offered few signs that the public was poised to rally behind Biden during an international crisis. Just 43 percent of voters approved of his handling of his relationship with Russia, according to a Reuters poll. The tally closely mirrored his overall approval rating, suggesting that attitudes about his handling of Russia may reflect general attitudes about his presidency more than any specific views of his foreign policy.

The surveys were taken before the Russian invasion into Ukraine and should be interpreted with caution. The findings only represent a baseline measure of where the public stood before the conflict, and attitudes might change quickly with new developments and sustained media coverage. It could be several more days before most pollsters complete surveys taken entirely after the Russian invasion.

Still, the polling hints at some of the political risks for the Biden administration.

The Reuters poll found that only about half of Americans backed sanctions against Russia if it would mean higher gas prices — as seems likely — even though more than two-thirds of voters said they supported increased sanctions in general.

Even before any economic fallout from the conflict, most voters gave Biden poor ratings for his handling of the economy, inflation and gas prices. Voters have ranked inflation and the economy among the most important issues facing the country in surveys taken over the last several months.

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.

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