This past week, Washington hosted two of my least favorite annual events.
It began with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) bringing their faithful to town to lobby for whatever the government of Israel might want at this particular moment. At week's end, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was in Washington rallying their crowd to bash the President and defend their "true conservative" principles.
During the past year, several commentators have, on occasion, pronounced both groups weakened and wounded, possibly fatally so. Conservatives were seen to be cannibalizing themselves, while AIPAC was reeling from having picked and lost two separate fights with President Obama: Syria and Iran sanctions. Based on the size and enthusiasm of their respective crowds and from the "red meat" thrown out by major speakers, neither group appeared to be in their death throes, but looks can be deceiving.
AIPAC is far from defeated. They still define the playing field and roles of engagement for most Middle East issues. Their operatives are well placed in Washington and their influence is real. Three years ago, they and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took on the Administration over whether or not the 1967 borders should be the basis for a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and they won. AIPAC's allies in Congress turned out en masse to give the Israeli multiple standing ovations as he scolded the President and rejected his terms for peace.
This year was different. AIPAC hoped its lobbying might to work to push the White House to attack Syria. They lost. Then, after President Obama launched negotiations with Iran in an effort to limit their nuclear program, AIPAC again challenged the White House, calling for new sanctions against Iran. The President fought back indicating that because such new legislation would have the effect of sabotaging the negotiations, he would veto any such effort. Once again, AIPAC lost.
As a fallback, AIPAC put everything it could think of into what it called the US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act— a bill that would deepen the already too deep US ties with Israel in trade, technology, defense, and intelligence sharing. When they threw in adding Israel to the "visa waiver" program, it was a step too far. Arab Americans lobbied hard that it would be fundamentally wrong for the US to grant Israel this benefit when Israel regularly discriminates against Arab American who attempt to enter Israel or the Occupied Territories. In the end, AIPAC lost. The bill passed, but without the automatic "visa waiver" provision.
If all that weren't enough, the "coup de grace" came the day before Netanyahu was to arrive at the White House to meet with the President. The Atlantic Magazine published a long interview with President Obama in which he alternately challenges, cautions, scolds, and warns Netanyahu about the need for Israel to make the right decisions to advance peace.
There was no mention of all these setbacks at the AIPAC meeting. Administration officials came pledging their "unshakable" devotion to Israel. Senators, Democrats and Republicans alike, took aim at the Administration for not loving Israel enough. Netanyahu, as always, was passionately spinning his webs of deceit.
While listening to the speeches at the AIPAC meeting it might appear that nothing had changed, but it has. The group has suffered a few blows, and the most they have had to endure in a short period. They may not show it, but they feel it.
As the week closed out, CPAC gathered to lay out their agenda and hear from conservative leaders— and those Republicans who may have strayed from the "true faith" and now need to burnish their conservative credentials.
As in past years, the speeches at CPAC were focused on rage over all things Obama. There were funny lines, to be sure, but a lot of angry and mean-spirited attacks, as well. Freshmen Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz were the crowd-pleasing "flavors of the year". Others like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Senator Marco Rubio were there. They once held in high esteem but, after displaying some moderate tendencies, have fallen out of favor. Their appearances were designed to atone and receive the movement's blessing.
A highlight of the event is the CPAC's "straw poll", as delegates vote for the person they most want to be the party's standard bearer. It has become a major media event. This year, Rand Paul won the straw poll by a significant margin. In second place was Ted Cruz. Between them, Paul and Cruz garnered almost one-half the votes. Christie and Rubio finished way back in fourth and fifth place.
Aside from the energy and enthusiasm of the weekend, conservatives have a real problem. Here's what they agree on: they don't like Obama and they don't like government. They control Congress and can block most anything the President puts forward, but their movement is divided and their leaders don't much like each other. In primary after primary, ultra-conservatives are challenging more mainstream GOP'ers, sometimes defeating them, sometimes weakening them, and other times forcing them to adopt policies that make them less electable.
Conservatives also have come to realize that they have a demographic problem. The US electorate is dramatically changing. Black, Latino, and Asian voters are increasing with each election cycle. These groups vote for Democrats, as do significant majorities of young voters and educated women. Because conservative policies are so out of touch with the needs of these groups, the base of the conservative movement continues to shrink, further reducing the GOP's chances in national contests. Conservatives know they have these problems, but continue to blissfully ignore them.
When listening to the fiery rhetoric and watching the enthusiasm at both AIPAC and CPAC, it becomes apparent that both groups retain the capacity to create problems for opponents. They may be down, but they are not out.