Washington: Senator Mitch McConnell strode onto the stage at America’s largest conservative political conference on Thursday holding a rifle high above his head, and the ballroom at the Gaylord Resort just outside Washington exploded with joy.
Any sense that the Republican Party is veering to the political centre in the lead-up to the November mid-term elections dissipated in the din.
Senator McConnell, the Republican Party’s Senate leader, is viewed as suspiciously moderate by the GOP’s activist base and, along with many other establishment figures in the party, he is facing a primary challenge from the right. Hence the firearm prop.
Other speakers at the Conservative Political Action Conference were either of the right or careful to appeal to it.
Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor and presumed 2016 presidential candidate, is also viewed with deep suspicion and was invited to attend after being shunned last year. He was quick to emphasise his pro-life credentials. ”Twice for the first time since Roe v Wade, New Jersey has elected a pro-life governor,” he said.
Another presumed candidate, Ted Cruz, the Texas senator and right-wing firebrand, opened the proceedings with a speech that called for the GOP to ignore Washington consultants who are urging moderation, and to stand instead on conservative principle. He cheerily dismissed former Republican presidential candidates he believed had strayed too far from the right: ”Of course, all of us remember president Dole and president McCain and president Romney.”
Yet another man thought to be in the running for 2016, Marco Rubio, a Florida senator cast as the GOP’s saviour after its last election loss – until he angered the right by backing immigration reform – gave a studiously statesmanlike speech, heavy on foreign policy and thick with American exceptionalism.
”I don’t like to make these issues of national security partisan … but we cannot ignore that the flawed foreign policy of the last few years has brought us to this stage,” he said to applause that was just a little warmer than polite.
The crowd did not really warm up again until the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre drew standing ovations with an address that studiously prodded conservative hot buttons, sometimes in list form. ”Solyndra, Benghazi, Fast and Furious, Obamacare, massive unemployment, a debt that will choke our grandchildren, and one executive order after another right on top of each other,” he said, name-checking scandals that some conservatives believe the mainstream media has failed to cover.
He described a nation that was on the brink of collapse due to the lies of Washington politicians and the media.
”In this uncertain world, surrounded by lies and corruption everywhere you look, there is no greater freedom than the right to survive and protect our families with all the rifles, shotguns and handguns we want,” Mr LaPierre said. ”We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists and there are home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers, knockout gamers and rapers, and haters and campus killers, and airport killers, shopping mall killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids, or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse our society that sustains us all.”
The media, he told the cheering audience, would sneer at him for this speech, but the NRA would never back down.
After Mr LaPierre’s vivid portrait of dystopia, Donald Trump’s rambling concluding address seemed almost grandfatherly. He boasted to the audience that he would not be using a teleprompter and it showed.
Likening US President Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter, he seemed to think the former president was dead, referring to him as the ”late, great Jimmy Carter”.
He lamented that America had not taken Iraq’s oil after the invasion and had instead left it to Iran. He railed against China, which he accused of devaluing its currency and stealing American jobs. With a deft pivot he went on to boast just how much the Chinese like him. ”My apartments, my ties, they love me,” he explained. ”I’ve got the largest bank in the world from China – Chinese bank – largest in the world, biggest bank in China, is my tenant.”
Given how unpopular the party’s right wing has become after the government shutdown it forced – and with the mid-term elections due in November – the time may come for a Republican run towards the centre. But perhaps not before the primaries are out of the way.