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NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — While presidential candidates past and present traded barbs on Thursday, hundreds of conservatives sat down to actually talk policy just outside D.C.
At the second day of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) hosted by the American Conservatives Union, Wisconsin’s Sen. Ron Johnson talked about reforming the Clean Air Bill; Virginia’s former Attorney General and one-time gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli talked about criminal justice reform; House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan spoke at length about reducing poverty; Sen. Tim Scott dodged his party’s vicious primary and spoke out against Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Still others talked about national security, gay marriage, religious liberty and engaging Latino voters.
There were no losers, winners, crude jokes about genitalia, or talk of just how big, beautiful and great the border wall would be, like the last debate. Amid a brutal primary, the event was a breath of fresh air.
“It’s a nice little vacation from having to hear about the politics,” Jake Lubenow, 19, told MSNBC. “It’s nice to hear about actual issues again.”
Lubenow, who is heading up the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s campus effort to help elect Marco Rubio, said he likes policy talk, but just isn’t seeing that conversation in the news these days – largely because of of Trump’s dominance in the race.
“When people grill him on actual policies, you don’t actually ever get answers,” he said. ”You just get empty rhetoric on how everything’s going to be huge you know, and great.”
CPAC’s attendees – conservatives from across the nation, grassroots activists, elected officials, consultants, and often dedicated young people – typically fall more into the mainstream Republican establishment than not. And while there’s a Trump contingent here, there’s also an awful lot of people who voted for and like Mitt Romney.
“It is refreshing,” Eric Morrison, a math teacher from Pennsylvania, said. “it’s nice to hear a lot of the national security talk, because you haven’t heard that even in the debates. The debates have been insults back and forth and a lot of bluster with very little specifics – how to defeat ISIS, how to secure the border, things like that.”
Morrison, 47, said he’s supporting Sen. Ted Cruz and took time off from work to attend the conservative gathering with his daughter, 20-year-old Emily, who told MSNBC she’s still cheering on Dr. Ben Carson, even as he drops out of the race.
Both felt the lack of policy talk was due to the bombastic front-runner. “Definitely the Trump effect, unfortunately,” Mr. Morrison said, as his daughter agreed.
California-based Republican consultant Mike Madrid led two sessions about recruiting more Latinos to the party, and said he chose to attend CPAC this year – after skipping it in previous years – because of Trump’s dominance in the party. He said his events are usually “split 50-50” between those who want to have a more inclusive party and older, angier conservatives who want to “build a wall, build a moat, put alligators in it.”
This year 80 percent of attendees at Madrid’s standing-room-only break-out sessions were younger conservatives leaning towards inclusivity, he explained.
“We’re really on the precipice of a generational change, generational direction,” he told MSNBC after his second event, referring to the election. “It’s a time for choosing.”
Though Trump was an obvious the elephant in the room, there was almost no mention of the billionaire mogul from the main stage Thursday. Not by Ryan, who spoke just a few hours hours after his 2012 presidential running mate Mitt Romney slammed Trump in a press conference. Not by conservative leaders like South Carolina’s Sen. Tim Scott, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker – the first to drop out of 2016’s Republican primary – and Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, who is lobbying against Trump’s candidacy. All spoke about the need for strong conservative values, but shied from going after Trump by name.
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“Conservatism is a set of policy principles and policy preferences,” Sasse said. “Republicanism is about an organization, it’s about a political party. I love both of these things. I want to see us make both of these great again, but you need to rank your Americanism first and your conservatism second and your Republicanism third.”
Rep. Mia Love also spoke out against the state and tone of the presidential race without naming names.
“Courageous leadership is never defined by insults, put-downs or personal attacks,” she said. “Courage is not found in sweeping generalities posing as policy, nor is it seen as superficial hype and political spin. And as conservatives we must always, always expect more of our leaders.”