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CPAC Goes To Washington: Can They Rally And Rebuild?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, you might've been following the long debate over whether this country locks up too many people for too little reason and for too long. It turns out something else interesting is happening that you might not heard about - the racial breakdown of the prison population is changing. More white people, especially more white women, are getting locked up. And we'll find out more about that in a few minutes.

But first we want to dig into the latest political news. Conservative leaders and activists from around the country have gathered in Washington D.C. this week, for their big annual conference known as CPAC. It's been a must-stop for right leaning politicians for a decade now, but now some critics are saying it's become a not-very-useful reality show, and we'll talk about that. Plus, President Obama is heading to the Middle East next week.

He has a busy agenda that includes meetings with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Mr. Obama has also been playing nice with Republicans at home, trying to make some progress on the federal budget. And we wanted to know if he's getting anywhere with that. So to talk about all this, we have two of our trusted political observers with us.

Corey Ealons is a former communications advisor in the Obama administration. He's now a senior vice president with the strategic communications firm Vox Global. Mary Kate Cary is a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush and she's now a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. Welcome back to you both. Thank you for joining us.

MARY KATE CARY: Great to be here.

COREY EALONS: Always good to be here.

MARTIN: So I want to start with CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. It started Thursday, it wraps up on Saturday. It's supposed to gauge the mood of the conservative movement. It's supposed to be energizing. It's a place where I think a lot of rising stars and established stars and people who are kind of making kind of a splash on the political scene have often been invited and make a further splash.

We can always count on former congressman Allen West to give us something to talk about. So let's have a clip of his speech from Thursday. Here it is.


ALLEN WEST: Folks, I'm speaking from experience when I tell you that there is nothing on this green earth that a liberal progressive fears more than a black American who wants a better life and a smaller government.

MARTIN: OK. Corey, I'll just ask you as a black American. Presumably you want a better life. I don't know if you want a smaller government. What was your reaction? You thought it was pretty provocative.

EALONS: I really did. And mainly because this is the kind of thing you would expect from Allen West. It's one of the reasons why he's not a member of Congress anymore. Because he's seen as being, even to the farthest right, extreme by people that he represented in his congressional district. That's why he's not there anymore. It was a vitriolic speech throughout. It was a history lesson in military history, quite frankly, and it was just disconnected from reality.

The challenge for West and the challenge for other speakers at CPAC is how do you begin to heal the divide within the party right now. That's the challenge that they had. And as we look at CPAC in retrospect, it's going to be interesting to see what came out of it. What do you gain when you have a political-tainment environment where you have Sarah Palin and Donald Trump on the same stage as your potential 2016 contenders?

So, again, looking at this in retrospect, I think we're going to have - hopefully will have some sense where the party is and where they're going. But I'm not sure we will.

MARTIN: Mary Kate you heard the whole speech.

CARY: I did.

MARTIN: So your thoughts about that speech in particular, but the CPAC in general?

CARY: I think if I was Allen West's spokesman, I would say what Allen West meant to say.

EALONS: Mm-hmm.


CARY: In a less provocative way, would be that he was making the case that the Republican Party should fight for every single vote, and that every vote counts. Both parties should not be writing off demographic groups. And there are plenty of black Americans and Asians and Jews and gays, young people, women, who should be Republicans. And the Republicans should be out there making their case every single day to black Americans.

And that's what I think - he should've put it that way rather than saying the way he did.

EALONS: I'm not so sure that's what he was trying to say but I appreciate your point.

CARY: That's what I would have liked to have heard from him.

MARTIN: But to that point, though, Mary Kate, one of the kind of the openings that this provides me is that people are looking at this and they're saying, OK, Allen West is in, Sarah Palin is in, Donald Trump is in, but Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, not invited. Bob McDonald, governor of Virginia, not invited. For the heresy of being too nice to somebody that, you know, other people don't like.

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: So people look at that and think, you know, what's up with that?

CARY: Well, there's a tremendous amount of tea leaf reading before CPAC opened. The list of speakers is dozens and dozens of speakers. And there were other people who were left off that nobody seemed to notice like Susana Martinez, not on there. John Boehner not on there. John McCain not on there. And then there are some people who did get invited that nobody's paying attention to: Mia Love.

I'd love to hear what she's going to say. Jeb Bush is speaking tonight. So there's a kind of a big tent moment here I think because it's such a diverse lineup. You do have Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, but there's also an entertainment value to this and I think that's a lot of speech-ifying and you do need some comic relief in there, I think.


CARY: But I do think there's, you know, new faces, old faces...

MARTIN: Well, you were kind of actually meaner about this a little bit before we talked. I mean, let's watch your true 'fess up. You say you're actually kind of irritated by how much attention people give to CPAC.

CARY: Oh, yeah. Because it's...

MARTIN: Because you think it's just - that liberals are just hating because they don't have a comparable confound.

CARY: Right. There's nothing in the left like this. And if we had MSNBC or Mother Jones running, you know, three days of liberal talkfest, there'd be plenty to pick apart. But we don't have that. You know, we've got Davos in Switzerland. Like there's really nothing on the left. And I think it would serve democracy well for the left to organize a similar thing that we can all pick apart as well.



EALONS: I'm going to just leave that where it is. I don't know that we need it right now.

MARTIN: I don't know that Davos - is Davos, like, which costs like how many thousands to attend?

EALONS: Right.

CARY: Oh, yeah. And it's in another country.

MARTIN: A liberal gabfest? I'm sorry. I don't know about that. But before we talk about, you know, interesting developments in the conservative movement the Republican senator Rob Portman from Ohio announced that he's now reversed his stance on same-sex marriage. He had been opposed to same-sex marriage rights. He actually vote - he'd cosponsored the Defense of Marriage Act. That's the federal ban on same-sex marriage. He now says that his son has disclosed that he's gay and he's changing his stance.

And I just have to ask, you know, Mary Kate, I mean, as, you know, a parent it's a very moving and powerful moment. But I'm wondering, A, politically, what's the force of this? And do you think that kind of says - what does it say? Well, you know, is this - it's like it's fine as long as it's my kid but you couldn't think, well, gee, there are a lot of other people's kids who are affected by government policy before now?

And are they all invisible to you, I mean?

CARY: No. I think, you know, Rob Portman, in full disclosure, is a friend of mine. We worked together at the White House back in the 41 days. And I read his column this morning in the Columbus Dispatch. It is absolutely pitch perfect what the Republican Party's stance on gay marriage should be. And he is joining a long and growing list of Republicans who, because they are exposed to somebody in their life, have changed their views.

And I think that is going to continue to happen. If you look at the polls, Pew and Gallup, both are showing in the last four or five years complete reversals on this. The American people are moving in this direction. And the Republican Party, the way that many people in the polls answer the pollsters is I may be personally opposed, but I don't think it should be illegal.

And the Republican equivalent to that could be socially tolerant, but it should not be illegal, it should be decided by the states. And that, to me, is the secret sauce that'll get the Republican Party there.

MARTIN: Talking with Mary Kate Cary and Corey Ealons about the political news of the week. Corey, I'm sure you want to weigh in here but I do want to leave enough time to talk about President Obama's visit to the Middle East next week. This is his first visit to Israel since becoming president, and it just seems that this has been a fraught relationship over the first term. And I'm just interested in how you think he could manage what would have to be very competing and very high expectations.

EALONS: Well, very quickly on the previous point I'll just say that President Obama has gone through this same conversion. And everybody remembers his historic statement in the inauguration address this year where he talked about gays having equal rights and equal opportunity and the same rights as everyone else in the country. And his, too, has been a conversion of proximity, talking about how can he look at his daughters, Sasha and Malia, who has friends who have gay parents and say that those folks are not as worthy as straight people?

So, you know, it is an interesting - when this conversion in proximity happens and I'm glad that the senator has made this conversion and I hope that he can help to convert others in the party to think about this more broadly. As it pertains to the president's visit to Israel, as you said, Michel, high stakes here for the president. It's his first visit to the region since becoming president. We all know he visited the area in 2008 when he was a candidate for president.

But this - he's going to have to check a lot of boxes here while he's there, the first of which, he needs to make sure that he has some outwardly attempt to heal that divide between he and Netanyahu. That's been very public. We all know about it. And it's seen as a real hindrance to real progress on the peace talks in the Middle East right now.

MARTIN: He's also, Mary Kate, spending a lot of time visiting some cultural and historic sites, like the Church of the Nativity, the Holocaust Memorial and the Israel Museum. Clearly, you know, you're making choices about how to spend time.

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: And I'm just interested in what message you think he's sending there.

CARY: I think there's a couple of missed opportunities. The ones he's going to are fine. There was one I saw that got turned down that I thought was a real opportunity for him, which was the Israeli Institute of Technology, which is all the young people, startup entrepreneurs. But unfortunately that institute is outside of Jerusalem, out on the coast. So it got cut for that reason.

But if I were President Obama, I'd be betting on the young entrepreneurs who are not the ones who are throwing Molotov cocktails in the streets and around the Middle East. And if he could highlight some of those young, smart, you know, capitalist kids, that to me is a great thing for the United States to be on the side of.

And I know he has to check all the boxes with the Church of the Nativity and things like that, but that's where I - if I could add one thing to his schedule, that's where I would have him go.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, I'm going to give you the last word here before I let you go. The president's been engaged in what they call a charm offensive with Republicans lately. You know, having dinner and other stuff. I have no problem with dinner. I don't know. But how do you think it's going? Any progress being made there or do you think...

CARY: I think it's great. It's long overdue, badly needed. And if I could recommend he does it 24/7 every day all day. My former boss, President Bush, was constantly on the phone, constantly writing thank you notes, and got a lot of big bipartisan sweeping legislation through two houses opposed. He had a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate. And I think a lot of it was because a lot of elbow grease on the back end.

And by the way, his Senate liaison back in 41 days was Rob Portman. And everybody in town knew him and he was constantly down on the Hill. And that paid off in spades, I think, so...

MARTIN: Corey, how do you feel? How do you feel it's going? Very briefly.

EALONS: Well, I'll tell you, it's a good thing. And this is not a new charm offensive. This is a different version of the charm offensive. Him coming to Washington this week, or coming to Capitol Hill, grown ups talking, this is exactly what the American people want right now.

CARY: Yup. That's exactly right.

MARTIN: Corey Ealons is a former communications advisor to President Obama. He's now with the communications firm Vox Global. Mary Kate Cary is a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush. She's now a columnist and blogger with U.S. News and World Report. Thank you both so much.

CARY: Thanks.

EALONS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.