Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Pence, Rick Perry and Ben Carson all sounded like presidential candidates in weekend speeches to conservative activists here for a conference organized by an influential Koch-backed group.
The would-be candidates touted their small-government bona fides and hammered prospective Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama on issues ranging from the Middle East to health care to Obama’s golfing.
Cruz and Perry got among the lustiest responses from the nearly 3,000 grass-roots activists at Americans for Prosperity’s annual Defending the American Dream summit. But Paul and Pence, who on Thursday night dined privately with a more exclusive group of major donors and VIPs including AFP foundation chairman David Koch and columnist George Will, appear to have made the best impressions on the elite and moneyed class.
Now in its eighth year, the AFP summit has become an increasingly important stop for aspiring GOP presidential candidates since the Kochs’ robust political network, which spent more than $400 million in the run-up to the 2012 election, emerged as a preeminent force in conservative politics.
This year’s meeting featured a mix of hands-on training (breakout sessions on social media, phone-banking and converting liberal relatives were well-attended), fun (a mechanical bull was a big hit), private meetings and whip-up-the-base speeches from big names.
It also, however, exposed some potential fault lines, both among prospective candidates and among the Kochs’ brand of libertarian-infused conservatism, social conservatism and hawkish national security conservatism.
The billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch and their political network, including Americans for Prosperity, are animated in their political activity by free-market domestic economic policies. They are leery of military intervention, mostly agnostic on social issues and have been supportive of efforts to reform immigration laws. AFP largely shies away from those issues (though other groups in their political network have taken divergent stances), and even the more socially conservative politicians like Perry mostly avoided topics like gay marriage and abortion rights in Dallas.
Cruz — a Texas senator who took the stage Saturday to chants of “Run, Ted, Run!” — declared of the Sunni jihadist group ISIL (also known as ISIS), “we ought to bomb them back to the Stone Age,” while Carson, a former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon, quipped on Friday, “When we get through with ISIS, it should be IS-was.” And Perry, the governor of Texas, accused Obama of failing in his duty to protect the nation’s southern border, declaring “if Washington, D.C., will not do its job to secure that border, Texas will” — a reference to his decision to send National Guard troops to his state’s southern border with Mexico.
At one point, some in the crowd appeared to push back on Perry’s hawkish foreign policy pronouncements. Ticking off the crises in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, Perry declared “the world needs a president who is not one step behind, who is lurching from crisis to crisis, who is always playing catch-up.” That prompted scattered shouts of “Rand Paul,” the Kentucky senator whose noninterventionist foreign policy stands in stark contrast to Perry’s and in some ways seems a closer fit with that of the Koch brothers.
Then there was Cruz taking a swipe at Pence, the governor of Indiana, for embracing a key part of Obama’s signature Obamacare health care overhaul — the expansion of Medicaid.
“I would urge any governor not to be complicit in the disaster that is Obamacare,” Cruz told reporters when asked about Pence’s move specifically. “It is hurting the American people.”
While AFP rebuked Pence over his Medicaid expansion, it has held up as a model his successful effort to slash the state’s income tax, and sources say he impressed attendees at Thursday’s dinner.