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OXON HILL, Md.—As some of the country’s most impassioned conservative activists gathered this week just down the river from Washington, much of the focus around CPAC has been on which 2024 contenders were speaking—Donald Trump, Nikki Haley—and which potential contenders were not (Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence).
That left Mike Pompeo a bit lost in the shuffle, which is why it may have come as something of a surprise the way in which the former Secretary of State’s speech questioning whether conservatives were picking the right leaders lit a fire under the restless crowd.
“This is a tough world, both abroad and here,” Pompeo told CPAC on Friday. “Over the last few years, I’ve heard some who claim to be conservative excuse hypocrisy by saying something like ‘We’re electing a President, not a Sunday school teacher.’ That’s true. But having taught Sunday school, maybe we can get both.”
It was as close as Pompeo came to making official what much of what Official Washington expects: that the ex-CIA chief and former top diplomat will join the race for the White House and challenge his former boss, ex-President Donald Trump. While circumspect, Pompeo is no stranger to diplospeak or political winks and nods; he understood exactly what he was doing as he addressed a group that is hardly the most welcoming these days to anyone whose family tree isn’t directly connected to the Trump trunk.
Still, Pompeo, a West Point and Harvard Law alumnus who served three terms in the House and was seen as a steadying force inside the often-chaotic Trump regime, held his own in a 23-minute speech that ended with almost everyone in the audience on their feet, a development that surprised even Pompeo’s biggest backers.
“The future of our American miracle is on the line, in a way that I’ve not seen since, goodness gracious, since maybe I was in high school,” the 59-year-old Army vet said in a speech that had more than a few echoes of the “Straight Talk” speeches common during the early days of Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaigns. (It is no accident that one of McCain’s top communications advisers, Brett O’Donnell, is working with Pompeo and was on hand for the speech.)
Among those mulling a 2024 bid, Pompeo is perhaps uniquely positioned to straddle the chasm between the Trump loyalists and those ready to move past the era when he defined politics. While Pompeo is positioning himself as a rival to Trump, he isn’t an antagonist. He has smartly deflected when asked about his former boss since their terms ended in early 2021. “I hope he enjoys retirement,” Pompeo deadpanned of Trump to a Chicago Navy Pier audience last September.
Unlike another top diplomat from the Trump era, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Pompeo is careful not to seem disloyal. Haley, a former South Carolina Governor who is a declared candidate for the White House in 2024, took subtle jabs at Trump during her appearance less than an hour before Pompeo took stage. “We’ve lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. Our cause is right, but we have failed to win the confidence of a majority of Americans,” Haley said during a speech met with polite applause. “That ends now. If you’re tired of losing, put your trust in a new generation.”
At another point, Haley renewed her calls for competency tests for leaders: “America is not past our prime. It’s just that our politicians are past theirs.”
Trump is 76 years old. President Joe Biden is 80.
Pompeo, for his part, is clearly enjoying his non-declared candidacy. As a potential candidate, he was under less of an obligation on Friday to say something with an edge. But he did note that the Trump administration added $8 trillion to the national debt—a big ding for fiscal conservatives—and, like Haley, noted the same 1-for-8 record in recent elections with the popular vote.
“The losses are a symptom of something much bigger. It’s a crisis in conservatism. We’ve lost confidence that we are right,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo has not-so-quietly been building toward a 2024 campaign, although his allies caution that no final decision has been made. The former top diplomat has a very narrow path toward the nomination, especially as the two biggest names—at this point—are Trumpists: the original one and his mini-me in DeSantis. Trump is, of course, the frontrunner for his party’s nomination at the moment, although it’s undeniable that skepticism toward him is at the highest it’s been in years.
CPAC was always going to be an uneasy fit for Pompeo, Haley, and anyone else who isn’t Trump himself. This is the kind of gathering where the hallways turned into bottlenecks when former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Trump adviser Kimberly Guilfoyle chatted on a temporary set decorated like the White House lawn on Thursday evening. Around the corner, Donald Trump Jr. and Rep. Matt Gaetz mugged for fans. Former White House counselor Steve Bannon, adviser Seb Gorka, and former spokesman Sean Spicer were all treated as minor celebrities, as another nearby throng was craning to hear close Trump ally Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene speak with a webcast Friday morning. Ahead of Pompeo’s remarks, Lara Trump and Don Jr., along with his girlfriend Guilfoyle, took the stage on Friday to hype their patriarch’s 2024 bid.
“I don’t know about you guys, but this feels like MAGA Country,” Don Jr. said at the start of a speech that felt like he was auditioning to host a wrestling match or telethon.
The Trumpist tone is in part to explain why some of the most prominent 2024 contenders—namely, DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence—found justification to steer clear of CPAC this year in the wake of sexual assault allegations against the event’s chairman. It’s also worth noting that the overwhelming specter of Trump’s return left some of his would-be competitors watching on C-SPAN or via staffers sending notes back to their bosses. In short, the event felt a little limp compared to pre-Covid-19 raucous caucuses.
The crowd is hardly a proxy for the modern Republican Party, but it does offer a cross-section of one specific corner of it. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York is the only member of GOP Leadership in the House or Senate to have an official posting there. It’s highly improbable that a presidential nominee will be decided by the activists who assemble every winter near Washington to hear prime far-right—and overblown—notions about social-media censorship, 87,000 new IRS agents, and parental rights. From the stage and in the hallways, “globalists” and the “international order” were decried, and foreign multinational diplomatic deals might as well be treated as an American flag set ablaze on the White House lawn.
Which explains why Pompeo didn’t stay solely in his most credible lane of foreign policy. Instead, he connected the foreign threats to the homeland. “These threats are inside the gates, they’re here at home,” he said, pointing to Covid-19’s suspected link to China and that country’s balloons floating in American airspace.
Pompeo also stretched back to his days as a member of Congress from Kansas. He decried teacher unions and their leaders, promoted parental rights, excoriated the 1619 Project and its approach to history. He praised the bravery of the Civil Rights Movement and bemoaned the sentiment of racial victimhood. And he promised to help small businesses to work as they see fit without Washington interference.
“You can cancel some things. You’re not going to cancel God,” he said to warm applause. “We need true believers who understand the stakes of our fight and aren’t afraid to act on it.”
The audience might not have been primed for Pompeo’s brand of conservatism, and his path to the White House was never going to be through this blue-and-gold-carpeted ballroom. Pompeo and his team know all that, and they’re prepared to grind their way toward a launch. The nomination is going to be a tough if not impossible battle, but it’s clear Pompeo doesn’t share that assessment. He’s quietly lining up pledges of support and doling out potential jobs in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, as well as working on a national network of friends. And at CPAC this week, his would-be allies were asking for one-on-one meetings with activists, sussing out what conservative players were seeking in their next nominee and making the case that Pompeo matched their desires.
Pompeo’s gambit isn’t irrational. Trump and DeSantis could end up canceling each other out, especially if the rank-and-file Republican voters tire of their competing showmanship; after all, Trump this week is calling for “Freedom Cities” with flying cars, and DeSantis is suggesting he may police Disney movies. All that feeds certain grievances, sure, but none of it exactly ignites the imaginations of traditional conservatives. It’s why Pompeo isn’t dispirited or discouraged from at least trying to topple the greatest showmen in his party. It’s why he showed up for CPAC. And it’s why no one will be surprised when he again and again shows up in early-nominating states despite some pretty glum polling.
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