Jacob Heilbrunn

CPAC and the Tea Party

The bustling atmosphere of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last night testifies to the ferment that has swept the right. Where else can you find someone wearing a dark suit coupled with a fluorescent red T-shirt that has the word "capitalism" emblazoned on it in white letters? More significantly, at last night's dinner House Speaker John Boehner made it clear that the Tea Party will not be held at arms-length but embraced. There is "no limit" to government cuts in spending that he is prepared to institute, Boehner declared.

It was a bold statement. Already House Republicans, under pressure from the Tea Party, are pushing for broader cuts for this fiscal year, seeking at least $60 billion. It actually shouldn't be that hard to find them. But of course with the Senate and presidency controlled by the Democrats, it's more of a rhetorical exercise than a practical one. Or is it? It could have real consequences if the GOP rebels at raising the debt debt (something that President Obama, by the way, voted against doing when he was a Senator and George W. Bush was president). Now the administration is warning that it would lead to world financial chaos if the GOP stymies raising the limit, which it could and might.

But such considerations seemed remote at last night's affair, where American Enterprise Institute head Arthur Brooks, who had been preceded by country western singer Ray Stevens, a foe of big government, both in its economic and security manifestations, warned about the perils of statism. Even Brooks' speech, however, had a somewhat folksy character as he recounted to the audience that he came from a liberal family and that his mother told him about a decade ago that she had a "personal question": "Are you voting for Republicans?"

Of course that question will loom large in 2012; as the savvy Boehner observed, the GOP must keep up its "momentum" and could only accomplish so much given Democratic dominance. The GOP has a treacherous road ahead of it as it attempts to navigate between establishment Republicans and the Tea Party. But so far, little has been able to disturb the festive spirit of CPAC as its founder David Keene goes on to become president of the National Rifle Association. It was a colossal error for Sarah Palin not to show up. CPAC has become an integral part of the GOP and the right. As Keene proudly observed, CPAC had about 750 attendees at its outset. Now it boasts over 11,000.