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CPAC Presenters Include A Number Of Trump Allies And Trump Himself

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The headliner of this year's Conservative Political Action Conference - or CPAC, for short - is former President Donald Trump. He speaks on Sunday. And despite condemnation from members of Congress, like Mitch McConnell, in the aftermath of the January 6 attack on the Capitol, today's presenters included a number of Trump's major allies in Congress - Utah Senator Mike Lee, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley and Texas Senator Ted Cruz...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED CRUZ: Let me tell you this right now - Donald J. Trump ain't going anywhere.

(CHEERING)

CORNISH: ...An indication that many U.S. conservatives still see the former president at the center of their movement. With us to discuss it is Lanhee Chen, a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and the policy director for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign. Welcome back to the program.

LANHEE CHEN: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So your old boss is among those who are not speaking at CPAC this year. What does that say about where the support in the party is right now?

CHEN: I think it's noteworthy. There are a number of key figures in the conservative movement who are not at this year's CPAC conference. And usually, as listeners may know, this is kind of the premier gathering for conservatives politically on a year-to-year basis. But you have Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador. You have former Vice President Mike Pence, the aforementioned Mitt Romney, Liz Cheney - people who are avoiding, or not attending at least, this year's conference.

So I think it speaks to the fact that, you know, there is a desire among some to put some space between where the conservative movement is and former President Trump, just as there is still a considerable amount of support for the former president, as you can see and hear from the proceedings at the conference this weekend.

CORNISH: While Republicans are out of power, they still have 50 seats in the Senate. They're just shy of a majority in the House. It's better off than after the Obama win in 2008. So is the Republican Party actually stronger in its current state than some are giving it credit for?

CHEN: I think that's a fair assessment. I think, certainly, the Republican Party outperformed expectations in U.S. House of Representatives races in 2020. You still see them controlling a number of states in the Senate that are relatively competitive. You also see them still relatively strong in governors' seats, as well as state legislatures around the country. So there's a lot of reason for Republicans to be optimistic. I do think that, obviously, the divisions over former President Trump, that is something that the party does need to sort out, and I think some of that will happen with time.

CORNISH: Can I jump in? Because you say divisions, but you look at CPAC, and it doesn't look very divided. They look united behind Trump.

CHEN: Well, I think that's one element of the party. I think it's fair to say that there are others, as we've noted, who are not at CPAC who have a different view. I think it's the case that the vast majority of Republican voters support Donald Trump. They think highly of him still. But whether that remains the case, whether that continues to be the case as we go on with time, I think that's something that I'm less certain of.

I do think that former presidents, they tend to fade with time. I think some of that we'll see with Donald Trump as well. But, obviously, there has to be a robust effort to make it more than just about a party of personality if we're going to move away from all of these conversations about the former president.

CORNISH: Did you see them talk policy in any way that gives you hope? There was a lot of conversation about the election, people still talking about the idea of election fraud. Did you hear about policy?

CHEN: Yeah, not in the headline speeches. I think there are elements of policy sprinkled throughout the conference. But, obviously, the key speakers - you know, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, others - the focus of all those speakers will largely be on kind of cultural issues, sort of conservatism as posted up against progressivism. I think those are likely to be the more central themes, as opposed to specific policy inquiries.

But to be sure, I think if the conservative movement is to be successful going forward, there does have to be more of an emphasis on ideas and on the policies that they would support if they were, again, back in the White House or back in a position of controlling either chamber of the Congress.

CORNISH: That's Lanhee Chen, Hoover Institution fellow and former policy director for Mitt Romney in 2012. Thank you for your analysis.

CHEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.