On the opening day of the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference, activists heard from a parade of Republicans often touted as potential presidential candidates in 2016: Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio; Govs. Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal; and Rep. Paul Ryan.
Though nothing said on Thursday -- nearly two years before the first primary or caucus -- will have implications for the outcome of the 2016 presidential race, the speeches did provide for an interesting contrast in both style and substance.
Cruz kicked things off the conference with one of his standard talks about the importance of standing up for principle, arguing that the defeats of former Republican presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney are evidence of what happens when the party’s candidate doesn’t stand up for something.
As he likes to do, Cruz eschewed making remarks from a lectern and instead walked around the stage throughout his speech. Though he’s used to giving barn-burning speeches to conservative audiences, this one was more subdued. When he went on at 9 a.m., the auditorium was half empty as attendees were stuck in long lines to pick up credentials.
Taking the stage shortly after Cruz to a bit fuller ballroom, Ryan argued that the outlook for Republicans was a lot better than it was last year — a time when the party was still licking its wounds from the 2012 election losses, with Ryan the vice presidential nominee.
Ryan downplayed the talk of a civil war in the GOP between the Tea Party, the establishment and various other factions. “I'm Irish,” he said. “That's my idea of a family reunion.”
He argued that there wasn’t a deep divide, but rather, Republicans were debating amongst themselves as they continued to build a conservative reform agenda.
“We are not just opposing the president,” he said. “We are proposing an agenda.”
Christie's speech was widely anticipated because he earned the ire of conservatives for, among other things, embracing President Obama ahead of the 2012 presidential election -- and during Hurricane Sandy -- and backing the expansion of Medicaid in New Jersey as part of Obama's health care law. And he also has been under close scrutiny for a scandal surrounding lane closures on the George Washington Bridge before his 2013 reelection.
With a conservative audience, the New Jersey governor played to his strengths, focusing on his epic battles with public-sector unions over pension reforms, noting his pro-life stance in a blue state, and railing against Obama’s lack of leadership and the general dysfunction in Washington.
When Christie addressed the 2012 Republican National Convention, he was criticized for making the speech too much about himself rather than Romney. In this speech, he went out of his way to compliment Republican governors including Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio and Rick Snyder of Michigan.
Jindal’s speech was almost two different speeches wrapped together. One speech was Jindal throwing red meat to the crowd (such as arguing that Obama’s latest foreign policy stumbles on Ukraine made him surpass Jimmy Carter as the worst president) and the other was him detailing his policy reforms in Louisiana, particularly on school choice.
This is the inherent challenge that Jindal will face as a presidential candidate should he run. When he seriously focuses on policy, it will renew criticisms that he’s too boring to mount a winning campaign. When he tries to get fired up and hurl insults, he risks coming off as forced and awkward.
One of the most interesting speeches of the day came from Rubio. In terms of pure speaking prowess, he’s consistently performed better than other Republicans, with a smooth, natural delivery and the capacity to be inspirational. Over the past year, a lot of the glimmer came off his star in the conservative universe because of his tireless efforts to advance a comprehensive immigration reform package that’s reviled by a vocal contingent of conservatives.
After touching on the crushing effects of onerous government regulation on businesses (especially small businesses), Rubio actually spent most of his speech talking about foreign policy.
Rubio spoke of the dangers of totalitarian regimes gaining momentum in the coming decade -- a nuclear Iran; a more powerful China interfering with trade; and a Russia with an expanded sphere of influence.
He argued that conservatives should view these problems as every bit as worrying as domestic issues like taxes, regulations and Obamacare. Rubio also criticized Obama for thinking that he can shape foreign policy through “sheer force of personality.”
Instead, Rubio argued for a more forceful foreign policy, recalling how President Ronald Reagan stood up to the Soviet Union in the 1980s – calling it out as the “Evil Empire” – even as academics argued that the U.S. would simply have to learn to live with a communist superpower.