ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra. The leaders of the conservative movement have long met in the Washington area each year for an event called CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. It has been a gathering place for the right wing for decades, with presidents and lawmakers and pop culture figures giving speeches to activists. This year, however, it was evident that CPAC might as well be called “TrumpPAC.” Speaker after speaker showered praise on the president despite his many challenges at home and abroad.
Here to discuss CPAC and the state of the Republican Party, Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today; Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; and Manu Raju, senior congressional correspondent for CNN.
President Trump is scheduled to speak at CPAC on Saturday. Ahead of that appearance a parade of Trump allies such as former White House aide Sebastian Gorka offered sharp words for Democrats and rising progressive voices in that party.
SEBASTIAN GORKA: (From video.) They want to take your pickup truck. They want to rebuild your home. They want to take away your hamburgers.
MR. COSTA: Manu, you cover congressional Republicans. When they look at CPAC, do they see a group that’s the fringe, or is that now the Republican Party?
MANU RAJU: Well, that is their base. I mean, these are the people that they need to make sure that they don’t anger in order to win in their primaries. And while a lot of their politics and their style is not going to be the same as the people at CPAC, or certainly not like the president, they realize they can’t upset these folks because if they do that’s going to be problematic for them in their primary, which is one reason why the president has such a hold over congressional Republicans. You mentioned the many challenges. Every time there’s a scandal, a controversy, a tweet that is incredibly insensitive or just outright false or a lie, you rarely hear any pushback from other than a handful of Republicans because of that very issue. They do not want to get on the wrong side of the president or the wrong side of the base because those folks are loud, they can organize, and they can win in the primaries. So this is the president’s party.
MR. COSTA: How has CPAC changed over the years, Susan?
SUSAN PAGE: You know, I first went to CPAC in the Reagan – during the Reagan years, where Reagan was a conservative president but CPAC was much to the right of even where President Reagan was, and it seemed pretty fringey in terms of American politics. And now it is right in the – it is the Republican Party. This is the Republican Party that has redefined the GOP. You didn’t hear people giving speeches about deficit reduction or about a muscular foreign policy, asserting American values around the world, some of the things that Republicans used to talk about. The only leg of that stool that used to comprise the Republican Party that remains is social conservatism on issues like abortion; that continues to be important. But this is – this is – CPAC hasn’t changed so much; I think the center – the centerpiece, the mainstream of its party has shifted in its direction.
MR. COSTA: Peter, you’ve written about President George W. Bush, a great book about that. When you think about how CPAC has turned, how the conservative movement and Republican Party have turned, is it because of President Trump, or is it maybe something deeper – the economic recession, the Iraq War, the Bush presidency? What prompted this sea change?
PETER BAKER: Yeah, it is interesting. Some of the tea party movement that sort of, you know, came to light under the Obama administration really had its roots in the Bush years. They did resent or bristle at some of the policies he advocated, including liberalized immigration rules. He also – look, he built barriers on the border, but he also thought we should have a path to, you know, legalization for people who are here illegally. He expanded Medicare. Obviously, the expansion of the security state upset at least some conservatives. There is this sense among some conservatives that Bush was not really one of them, and that’s how Trump has redefined conservatism for today. Instead of the conservatism of the Bush era or even the Reagan era, it’s a conservatism of protectionism in trade; it’s a conservatism of friendship with Russia rather than, you know, a new Cold War; and it’s a conservatism where deficits don’t matter. So it is fascinating to watch it because it’s definitely not Bush’s party. And if you walked around CPAC, you would hear people say things about Bush that you never would have imagined just eight years ago.
MANU RAJU: Yeah, I mean, Bush spoke at CPAC, right, on multiple occasions. You can’t imagine any member of the Bush family being able – being received warmly there. There was even one commentator I read about mentioned John McCain in a very negative way, the late John McCain, the former presidential nominee for this party, and the negative comment about McCain got applause from the crowd. I mean, that is another sign of where this party is. The folks that used to be in the mainstream of the party are far out of step with where their base is.
MR. COSTA: But, Manu, how out of – they are out of step in that respect – some of the personalities, the presentation – but isn’t part of the thread that keeps the GOP and the right wing together these days the Supreme Court nominees, the overhaul of the tax law?
MR. RAJU: Yeah, no question, and the fact that they’ve been – and one of the things that the president has accomplished is getting all these lower court nominees confirmed – not just getting Supreme Court justices on the bench, but appeals court judges, district court judges. That has been a centerpiece of the Senate Republican agenda, to confirm these judges, and that is one reason why a lot of Republicans, too, look away from all the scandals of this White House, because they say, look, we’re getting judges confirmed and we got a tax law passed that essentially sticks to general Republican orthodoxy on that issue. We can live with the stuff that we can live – we’ll ignore the stuff we don’t like, but at least we’ll get some stuff that we do like.
MR. COSTA: And it’s interesting, Susan, that the conservative media personalities who were popular at CPAC, like Sebastian Gorka, frequently appear on Fox News Channel. Places like the Weekly Standard, a magazine that has been skeptical of President Trump, that shuttered in recent months. You don’t see Trump skeptics, Trump critics having any kind of prominence at this moment on the right.
MS. PAGE: No. No prominence, no real clout. It is hard – I don’t doubt that President Trump will have some symbolic challenges for the nomination. It’s hard to imagine he has a serious challenge that threatens to take the nomination away from him. And, you know, it’s not just policy. It is social conservativism, social policy, tax policy. It’s also support for his style. You know, a lot of – you go to CPAC and people talk about how much they like the fact that he’s confrontational toward the press, or that he has an attitude that makes him think he’s standing up for the little guy.
MR. BAKER: Yeah. And it’s a shared enemy I think, right? He is – he is against the elite establishment. Therefore, he’s one of us. He’s – and therefore, anything anybody says about him that seems derogatory, like Michael Cohen, is just part of the deep state conspiracy to get him. And so they discount the negative things, because they don’t see them as being legitimate. And they are cheering his, you know, bull in a china shop style.
MR. COSTA: I just want to finish with what Susan brought up, the primary challenge. The potential from Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, former Ohio Governor John Kasich. All these names have been bandied about as possibilities to run against President Trump in 2020. Do they look at CPAC and look at the conservative movement, and the Republican Party base and say, impossible?
MR. RAJU: They should. (Laughs.) But they probably won’t, because these are politicians who believe that they can be president. A primary challenge from the center, challenging from the left, that is – so as a moderate candidate – is virtually impossible in this Republican Party. Of course, you know, who knows. Trump – you know, no one thought Trump was going to be president. He became president. But it’s so hard to see that getting any real traction. If there’s any real way, maybe a Pat Buchanan-type challenge, someone challenging him from his right. But how can you even get to the further right of Trump, given his style and the way that he campaigns and the way that his base absolutely loves him? It’s just hard to say.
MR. COSTA: Are you saying Steve Bannon? Steve Bannon 2020?
MR. RAJU: Steve Bannon. (Laughs.) Exactly. That’s right.
MS. PAGE: You know, I agree with you. On the other hand, it is dangerous for presidents to be challenged within their own party for the nomination. You know, ask George H.W. Bush and the Pat Buchanan challenge. It does damage – sometimes they don’t succeed in taking the nomination away from you. They can definitely succeed in weakening you in the general election.
MR. BAKER: In the last – that’s true. In the last 75 years, the only incumbent presidents who didn’t win another term who won one had been challenged within their party. And every incumbent who won another term wasn’t.
MR. COSTA: We’ll leave it there and keep our eyes on all of it. That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on the Washington Week website. While you’re online, check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and see you next time.