What a difference a year makes.
In early 2016, when the Republican presidential campaigns were heating up and more than a dozen candidates (it ended up being 17) were jostling for recognition and support, then candidate Donald Trump decided not to attend that year’s annual conference of CPAC — the Conservative Political Action Committee, the nation’s largest and most active grassroots organization for conservatives — just days before it was to begin. It was said he did not feel welcome because he wasn’t conservative enough; Trump was not and is not a traditional conservative.
On Friday, Feb. 24, now president, Trump will be hailed as the conservatives’ most unexpected win at the CPAC conference, being held at the Gaylord National Convention Center at National Harbor, Maryland, near the border of Washington, D.C. He will be the first sitting president to address the gathering since Ronald Reagan in 1985. Trump’s agenda now appears to be the conservative agenda and the winning Republican agenda.
“The conservative movement has elected a Republican president,” said American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp at the conference opening Wednesday. “It’s not so much now about complaining about President Obama’s agenda as it is about what we’ll do with political power and the responsibility to get the economy moving.”
“It’s the top of the first inning,” said White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon during a Feb. 23 interview with Schlapp at CPAC. “Every day it’s going to be a fight,” said the controversial former editor of Breitbart News in a rare public appearance. Known for being feisty, he seemed relaxed as he turned to the packed audience of conservatives and made a plea: “We ask you to have our back. And, we ask that you hold the Trump administration accountable for delivering on what we promised during the campaign.”
White House Chief of Staff Rence Priebus, whose office neighbors that of Bannon, concurred. “We’re a coalition that Trump brought together,” Priebus said. “We are together from 6:30 a.m. to around 11 p.m. every day. The biggest misinformation that the media dispenses all the time is that we are chaotic, contentious and divided. But we work with the same almost obsession as Trump to do everything he promised in his campaign. We just look different,” the neatly dressed, smallish former chairman of the Republican Committee grinned at the shall-we-say casually dressed, multi-layered, tieless, blond, bulky Bannon. They walked off the stage together — with Bannon’s arm around Priebus.
The first day of the conference seemed to focus particularly on education. New Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was cheered as she told the large number of college-age supporters in the crowd, “Don’t shut up! Even if you feel at risk expressing conservative thoughts on [presumably mainly liberal] campuses, keep making your point with respect, civility and confidence.”
Many of the CPAC workshops on Wednesday and Thursday were dedicated to training campus activists. Topics included: “Using Social Media to Change College Campuses,” “Trigger Warning and Safe Spaces: Campus Activism in a PC Age,” “How to Win Campus Elections,” “How to Bring Prominent Conservatives to Your Campus” and “Understanding Our Rights on Campus.”
Individual and group career counseling and recruitment sessions for conservative Republican office seekers were ongoing during the conference. They were sponsored and staffed by the Arlington-based Leadership Institute, which offers communication training for conservatives — especially conservative college students — year-round.
Vice President Mike Pence will speak at CPAC tonight, Feb. 23, and the president will speak Friday morning, Feb. 24. The conference continues through Saturday, Feb. 25.