Dispatches from the red planet

Cheers echoed around the huge conference hall as the name was finally announced. For the second year running, Texas Republican Ron Paul had won the straw poll for the Presidential nomination at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). For most in attendance, particularly the 1100 or so supporters of the Texas Governor who had made the trip to Washington, the result was never in doubt.

Yet despite their enthusiasm, Paul remains at best an outsider within the Republican Party thanks to his fixation with the Federal Reserve and his advocacy of complete isolationism in regards to US foreign policy. Earlier in the conference, Donald Trump, a fellow potential nominee, had draw jeers from the crowd by stating that Paul had “no chance”. Most serious political opinion agrees with Trump, though these are strange times for a Republican Party whose shape is being shifted by the gravitational pull of different groups, factions and figures from within its own broad ranks.

Speaking after the event, Tony Fabrizio, the Republic pollster in charge of collating the results, offered some perspective: “In the same poll in 2007, Rudi Giuliani and Mitt Romney finished a close first and second. Guess who came in fifth? John McCain.” A year later McCain won the Florida primary en route to his ultimately unsuccessful run for President. Sarah Palin, then a little-known Governor of a peripheral state, was not even on the ballot card. In short, the poll means nothing; anything can happen.

Every year, CPAC offers those affiliated with the right of American politics the opportunity to come together, debate the direction of the movement and, in the years preceding an election, cast an eye over prospective candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination. Organised by the American Conservative Union Foundation, the event started in the early seventies, growing through the decades to become an annual point of focus not only for the thousands of attendees, but the many millions throughout America for whom conservatism is not only a political leaning but a way of life.

Yet recent yeas has seen a schism develop in American conservatism with the Tea Party, a grass roots movement born from the ruins of Republican defeat in 2008, outflanking the GOP to secure huge swathes of populist support throughout much of America’s heartland. Theirs is a message of fiscal and moral conservatism, anchored in the twin pillars of Christian teaching and Reaganomics.

Much of their ire is directed at President Obama, with oft-quoted accusations ranging from genuine concerns about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, to the downright conspiratorial, in which the President is a Kenyan-born fifth columnist planted in the White House as part of a communist/Muslim plot.

Despite the movement’s willingness to propound outlandish beliefs, their political power has grown spectacularly during the past three years, so much so that many in the GOP have been forced to shift further from the centre in order to ally themselves with the Tea Party’s more conservative agenda.

Last year’s mid-term elections, in which the Republican Party secured the House of Representatives, including the election of a number of Tea Party-backed candidates, served to emphasise the growing re-alignment of the GOP, moving rightwards as to remain connected to the vocal Tea Party base. Only recently, John Boehner, the new leader of the house, refused to denounce those that question Obama’s constitutional eligibility, arguing that “it’s not my job to tell the American people what to think.” Although Boehner has a strong conservative voting record, he is certainly no crackpot and has stated on record that he believes Obama is a US citizen. Yet his refusal to denounce the “Birthers” (those who question Obama’s citizenship), a sop to the Tea Party faithful, indicates how much their support is now prized within the GOP.

The emergence of the Tea Party has certainly energised the American Right, breathing new life into a Republican Party that less than three years ago looked old, ponderous and frail next to the Democrats and their newly-elected talisman. Since then, the fallout of the global economic crisis, the healthcare debate and the ongoing issue of immigration have eaten away at Obama’s popularity, hindered further by a Tea Party whose concern about shifting demographics, particularly the influx from the southern border, has galvanised their opposition. “Take Back Our Country” is a crude yet all-encompassing emblem for the Tea Partiers, whether their concerns are economic, demographic or, in the case of those convinced of an Islamic/communist coup, fanciful bordering on sinister.

So where does this leave the 2012 election? The emergence of the Tea Party may well skewer the field for the next election not only pushing new candidates to the fore, but also influencing the campaign message of the established candidates. One of the Tea Party’s central messages is cuts in spending. As such, expect to find that issue high on every Republican candidate’s agenda. As a Muriel Coleman, a board member of the American Conservative Union told me on the second day of the conference, “the winner will be the person who takes the core principles of Reagan and moves them into 2012”.

Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts who was also a candidate for the 2008 election, looks a certainty to run, alongside former Arkansas Governor turned Fox News host Mike Huckabee. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty also looks a likely candidate, along with Haley Barbour, the current governor of Mississippi’s and Indiana’s governor Mitch Daniels.

Outside the main field, Ron Paul has plenty of support among young Republicans and Libertarians. One man that has already said he will stand is Fred Karger, an openly-gay Republican strategist who served in the Reagan Administration and will run as an independent. Then there’s Donald Trump. All of the above attended CPAC with the exception of Huckabee.

Speaking to Karger, it seems his candidacy is more about offering publicity for gay civil rights than a genuine tilt at the White House, though running as a centrist (“a fiscal conservative and a social moderate” as he puts it) does offer an alternative to the very polarised nature of current domestic politics in the US. And perhaps the most polarising figure in US politics remains the big unknown for 2012.

“I think Sarah Palin is going to get in to this,” says Karger. “If she does it’ll throw a money wrench into everyone else’s plans”. Like Huckabee, Palin also failed to appear at CPAC, yet her shadow loomed large over the three-day event. The 2008 Vice Presidential nominee has yet to rule herself out, however despite her undoubted popularity in the heartland, many attendees in Washington, especially the younger conservatives, were unconvinced by Palin’s credentials. “I can see why she resonates with a lot of people in this country,” Eric Chester, President of the Libertarian Club at the University of Delaware, tells me on the third day. “But I certainly wouldn’t vote for her.”

Likewise Ashlee Filkins, a student at the West Virginia University: “Palin is a good cheerleader and very good at voter-initiative but I don’t think she’s a viable candidate for 2012.”

Speaking to other attendees, Palin’s no show, along with her recent foray into reality TV hasn’t proved endearing. Another factor that could diminish her popularity is the emergence of Michelle Bachmann, a representative for Minnesota’s 6th congressional district who in recent months has been hailed as the new darling of the Tea Party, Similar to Palin, Bachmann is a staunch conservative who believes in the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools, the phasing out of social welfare programmes and a ban on same-sex marriages. Whether she can have an impact on the race for 2012 is debatable, especially after she gave her own Tea Party-backed response to Obama’s recent State of the Union address, much to the chagrin of many within the GOP. Then again, she opened the conference at CPAC.

Karger remained diplomatic on his potential fellow nominees. “I’m an advocate of the big tent,” he says. “It’s the more the merrier.” More there certainly will be, but with no front runner and prospective Republican candidates faced with the almost impossible task of appealing to both the moderate and extreme wings of the party, come November 2012 the merriment may well belong to the Democrats and Barack Obama.

This first appeared in The Independent. The original article can be found here.