Last Wednesday I drive to our nation’s capital to cover the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). CPAC is more than a gathering of conservative-minded people; it is part educational, part salesmanship, part pep rally. This year’s version of CPAC was more focused than the other ones I covered, possibly because it is a presidential election year.

Many of the highlights of the event were covered incorrectly by the mainstream media or not covered at all. What they missed most was the difference in tone. While there were certainly disagreements on who was the best person to get them there, this confab was unified in purpose and seemed to concentrate on the “big picture” more than ever before.

The Blogger Lounge Was Visited by “The Rent is Too Damned High” Guy

Below are some highlights of the event:

The Straw-Poll
Nothing about the media coverage of CPAC astounds me more than the coverage of the Straw-Poll. The straw-poll is as real as unicorns, monsters under the bed and of course the tooth fairy.

The last time Mitt Romney won the CPAC straw poll was four years ago. That victory was legitimate; Romney was being thanked for almost denying John McCain the 2008 nomination. In 2010 and 2011 Ron Paul won the poll by busing in and paying admission for hundreds of his supporters from area college campuses. This year Mitt Romney did the same thing.

Romney probably would have won anyway, albeit by a smaller margin. But he could take no chances. Romney needed to win an endorsement from the country’s largest conservative organization to help prove his right-wing “street-cred.”

For the media to treat it as anything but an inaccurate “beauty contest” was absurd, and they should know better.

The Lid and Lt. Col. Allen West

The Vision Thing Part 1
One timely issue that became a huge part of CPAC was the Obamacare ruling made by Health and Human Services Director Kathleen Sibelius and approved by President Obama. The ruling forces Catholic schools, hospitals and charities to purchase health insurance which covered birth control, abortion-producing drugs and sterilization which is against their religious beliefs. This order by the executive branch was vilified by almost every speaker who covered domestic issues, and the President’s “compromise” announced on Friday didn’t seem to calm people down.

Rather than position the controversy as a “pro-life” issue the speakers framed it as a first amendment issue. One attendee I questioned

The vision of the First Amendment wasn’t of a wall between of church and state; it was of a guarantee of freedom of religious worship and practice the amendment was not designed to protect government from the influence of religion, but religion from the bully tactics of the government. Obama is just trying to bully Catholics into submission.

A Catholic Priest I spoke to wanted to thank the Jewish people for all the support they have given his Church on the issue.

If the Catholic Church fails to overturn the ruling, the next ruling may try to force you to eat pork or to abandon other parts of your beliefs.

The Father’s warning is not too far-fetched. You may remember that last year a community in San Francisco tried to ban circumcision of children less than eighteen.

  Romney At CPAC

The Vision Thing Part 2
All of the speakers were interrupted by applause, but those who concentrated on vision rather than policy, created buzz and discussion about their “speeches.” Speakers who spoke of repealing Obama policies such as Obamcare, Dodd-Frank and the oppressive EPA regulations were popular. But the “big-picture” speeches about restoring freedom, and shrinking the size of government were remembered.

The speeches garnering the most attention were those of Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Jim DeMint (R-SC) as well as Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) along with the always electrifying (and entertaining) Andrew Breitbart.

The Vision Thing Part 3
All three conservative Presidential candidates addressed the CPAC Conference (Ron Paul is a libertarian not a conservative). All three addresses were well received. Santorum’s was received best and generated the most after-speech buzz–Gingrich’s generated the least.

Santorum was first up and immediately drew a standing ovation. Standing in front of his wife and kids he went right after Mitt Romney, saying the GOP should not sacrifice its conservative principals (a reference to the perception that Mitt Romney is not a true conservative). Over and over and in different ways he said that Romney did not present a big enough contrast to Barack Obama to defeat the sitting president.

After his opening, Santorum transitioned into the “vision thing” which perked up the audience (either that or their morning coffee was starting to kick in). The bulk of Santorum’s speech was about this election not being about individual polices, it was about returning to the individual rights granted by God, outlined in the Declaration of Independence and protected by the Constitution.

Despite the fact that at times he tried too hard, Mitt Romney’s speech was his best in a long time. There were however, weak points. It’s understandable that (especially in front of this forum) he needed to prove that he was conservative. But 25 times during the speech he felt the need to tell the crowd he is a conservative including using the phase “I was a severely conservative Republican governor,” which was a severely poor choice of words.

On the other hand Romney finally displayed flashes of the vision needed to win the presidency.

I believe this is a moment that demands we return to our basic values and first principals. This is our moment. This is why we are conservatives. The task before us now is to reaffirm the convictions that unite us and go forward shoulder to shoulder to secure the victory America deserves.

It’s a tepid start but if he gets the nomination (and wants to beat President Obama) Mitt Romney needs to take that paragraph and expand it. He needs to start his speeches by explaining his vision and principals and how all of his policies must flow from those values, not the other way around.

The Newt Gingrich speech was very “policy heavy.” He repeated the rapid-fire proclamation of what he would do during the first 40-days of his presidency which was very popular with some of the crowd. It was also forgotten soon after it was given. Newt delivered his regular stump speech. And that first 40-days scenario was outlined in at least one of the debates. While others were talking vision, Gingrich was presenting rehashed “trees” at a conference to an audience looking for brand new “forest,” many of the attendees.

Sarah Palin Gave a Motivating Speech

The Vision Thing Part 4
The 2012 Keynote Address was delivered by former Alaskan Governor, Sarah Palin, a polarizing figure even within conservative circles. I am still not sure why so many conservatives speak derisively about her. All she has done for the past three years is support conservative causes, campaign for conservative candidates and speak at conservative events.

Palin’s keynote was the perfect way to end a conference that expounded the “vision thing.” It had a Knute Rocke “Win one for the gipper” feel to it (except it was more like win one for your children).

When a group of occupy protesters were able to sneak their way into the hotel and interrupted Sarah Palin’s speech they were quickly drowned out by the over-flow audience shouting “USA! USA!

“See, you just won. You see how easy that is?” Palin told the adoring crowd.

Palin rallied the crowd not just by attacking Obama but by lashing out at the cronyism which runs through both parties in Washington.

But this Washington is a place where politicians, men and women arrive as men and women of modest means and they become Plutocrats. The money-making opportunities for DC politicians are really endless, but they don’t just enrich themselves off of you, for themselves, they spread the wealth around to their pals, and this has a name: crony capitalism.

I said in a speech this summer, this isn’t the capitalism of free men and free markets, of risk and sacrifice, of innovation and hard work. No, it’s the capitalism of connections, and of government bailouts and handouts and waste, and corporate welfare and corruption. This is the capitalism of Barack Obama and the Permanent Political Class.

It’s why I say to the Occupy Protesters, you are occupying the wrong place. You are protesting the wrong thing. This crony capitalism is the root of our economic problems. It has spurred the expansion of government which diminishes freedom and opportunity for all to rise and to succeed. See, some politicians get elected just by promising more programs, and new freebies and new favors, and then government grows to accommodate their promises. It never shrinks, and that crowds out the liberating individual initiative and the equal opportunity that America was built upon. It swallows up the work ethic that we try to teach our children and it extinguishes that independent, pioneering American spirit.

Palin delivered one of the best articulations of the “Vision Thing” I had ever heard. It was the prefect exclamation point to CPAC, a big picture rallying cry designed to motivate the convention to spend the next nine months working hard to achieve CPAC’s political agenda, replacing this president and shrinking the government.