President Trump's status with the Conservative Political Action Conference has gone from "it's complicated" to a full-on committed relationship.
That turnaround was to be expected, given that the former reality TV star and billionaire businessman pulled off an unlikely upset last November that finally gave attendees at CPAC what they had been salivating over for more than a decade — control of the White House, Congress and a new conservative justice nominated to the Supreme Court.
But to do that, attendees had to be willing to embrace Trump's brand of populist conservatism that hasn't always jibed with the more libertarian strain that's been in command at CPACs of yesteryear.
"Is Trump a conservative? He's not — no, I don't think so," said college student Matt Longenacker who was attending from Lancaster, Pa.
But the 21-year-old still cast his ballot last November for Trump, albeit with some reservations that Trump might actually grow the federal government instead of shrinking it.
"Unfortunately, it takes somebody who isn't willing to play by the rules to get the job done. And right now, that's how I tend to agree with him in that sense," Longenacker said.
Cheryl Posavac, 49, from Philadelphia, made the case that Trump did show some shades of conservatism that blended in with a more libertarian worldview.
"He's a true believer in America and the Constitution," she said. "I don't think we've seen that in a while — somebody very much championing that. Not really; not in the traditional sense."
Is Trumpism the new Reaganism?
The last person who embodied the group's perfect conservative ideal was one that Trump's team was quick to draw a comparisons to throughout the week — President Ronald Reagan.
Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged in his speech Thursday night that his own political marriage with Trump may have seemed like an odd one, given their contrasting images.
"You know, I'm a small town guy. He's big city. I'm Midwest, he's Manhattan Island," the former Indiana governor laughed. "He's known for his bigger-than-life personality, his charm, and his charisma. And I'm, like, not."
But, it was another one-time famous star who ultimately provided the mantle to which all other conservatives are still measured up to.
"You know, from the outset, our president reminded me of somebody else, a man who inspired me to actually join the cause of conservatism nearly 40 years ago, President Ronald Reagan," Pence said.
American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp, whose group sponsors CPAC each year, made the same comparison.
"You know the last time a president of the United States came to CPAC in his first year?" he asked the crowd before introducing Trump Friday morning. "Ronald Reagan in 1981."
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus also made sure the allusion to the 40th president was clear.
"Some of the core principles of President Trump are very similar to those of Ronald Reagan," the former Republican National Committee chairman told CPAC attendees on Thursday. "When you look at peace through strength and building up the military ... peace through strength, deregulation. You think about the economy, the economic boom that was created. And some of it is going to take a little time, I mean, to get the jobs back; to get more money in people's pockets. Those things are going to happen."
While there are some similarities in Trump's view of America's great days that lie ahead, his speech to CPAC was not Reagan's "shining city on a hill" or brimming with the kind of optimism that the former president inspired. But the speech was not exactly the dark "American carnage" Trump talked about in his inaugural address just over a month ago, either.
To hear the president tell it, his initial relationship with CPAC that began six years ago when he first addressed the gathering was love at first sight.
"I walked the stage on CPAC. I'll never forget it, really. I had very little notes and even less preparation," Trump reflected on Friday. "So when you have practically no notes and no preparation and then you leave and everybody was thrilled, I said, 'I think I like this business.' "
He didn't run the next year after giving that speech in 2011, but the ultimately successful campaign he would launch in June 2015 drew from those same populist ideals he laid out to CPAC in his first appearance. He told the crowd six years ago that if he were president "we'll be taking back hundreds of billions of dollars from other countries that are screwing us, we'll be creating vast numbers of productive jobs, and we'll rebuild our country so that we can be proud."
CPAC becomes TPAC
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway went a step further than her other colleagues, outright saying that this conference was now fully in Trump's control. "This will be TPAC when he's here, no doubt," she predicted.
"You know, every great movement — and which the conservative movement is, of course — every great movement ends up being a little bit sclerotic and dusty after a time, and I think they need new fusion of energy," Conway said. "And in the case of candidate Trump and president-elect and nominee Trump, he went right to the grassroots and brought you along. He made people feel from the beginning, they were part of this movement."
Conway herself was a convert to the Trump team, eventually becoming his final campaign manager. But before that, she had been behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the primary, leading one of the superPACs supporting him.
A year ago, it was Cruz who looked like he was in the driver's seat at CPAC, winning the presidential straw poll and ribbing Trump for skipping out on the gathering.
Cruz was back again at CPAC after embracing Trump late in the campaign. But many of the other usual mainstay speakers were absent, as The Washington Post pointed out. There were no speeches from one-time crowd favorites like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Not even GOP congressional leaders like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made appearances.
Trump's proclamation on Friday that "the era of empty talk is over" belies the struggles he's had in his first month in office — from blowback over the hurried implementation of his controversial travel ban to the anger Republican members of Congress are facing back home at recess town halls this week over Obamacare repeal plans and other issues. Both Pence and Trump insisted that the health care law would be overhauled the replaced, though neither offered any specifics.
While attendees and conservatives as a whole will want to eventually see results of those promises and ensure that Trump isn't just offering "empty talk," the president and his advisers returned to his usual punching bag — the media — or "fake news," as Trump and others have taken to calling mainstream news sources.
"So just in finishing, I say [the fake news] doesn't represent the people, it ... never will represent the people, and we're going to do something about it because we have to go out and have to speak our minds and we have to be honest. Our victory was a win like nobody has ever seen before," the president warned.
His chief strategist Steve Bannon — the former head of the controversial Breitbart News — was even more direct when he appeared on stage with Priebus on Thursday, using his favorite derisive label of the "opposition party" for the media.
"It's going to get worse every day for the media," Bannon said, going on to warn the crowd that "if you think they are giving you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken."
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