The backdrop to the giant stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference meeting featured somewhat ghostly images of Ronald Reagan, who was born in 1911; Barry Goldwater, born 1909; Jesse Helms, born 1921; and William F. Buckley, born 1925. Above the pictures of those now-departed leaders was the convention's motto, AMERICA'S FUTURE: THE NEXT GENERATION OF CONSERVATIVES.
Talk about conflicting messages. The motto conveyed a young, forward-looking vision. The pictures said old, old, old. And the conflict continued when two of the Republican Party's new leading lights, Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Marco Rubio, addressed the crowd. One was biting and challenging, the other smooth and reassuring. One stressed fundamental change, the other continuity.
Paul, at 50 the older of the two, didn't mince words in calling for an overhaul of the party: "The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered. I don't think we need to name any names, do we?"
In one sense, Paul was referring specifically to Sen. John McCain, the Senate old bull who called Paul a "wacko bird" after Paul's recent filibuster against U.S. drone policy. But Paul meant more than just McCain when he sketched an outline of a "new GOP, the GOP that will win again."
The new GOP will be founded on a new generation. "The Facebook generation can detect falseness and hypocrisy a mile away," Paul said. "They want leaders that won't feed them a line of crap or sell them short. They aren't afraid of individual liberty."
"Our party is encumbered by an inconsistent approach to freedom," Paul continued. "The new GOP, the GOP that will win again, will need to embrace liberty in both the economic and personal sphere."
Before Paul spoke, his supporters had distributed STAND WITH RAND posters that featured a cool, "Mad Men"-style rendering of the senator. (Indeed, a large number of people stood the entire time Paul spoke.) But there's no doubt that many of those cheering Paul were doing so mostly because he had the courage and the smarts not just to stand up to the White House but to back the Obama administration into a corner over presidential power. To them, the specific issue involved in the filibuster -- drone warfare -- was less important than the fact that Paul took a stand.
"We were talking about drones, but really in essence we were talking about presidential authority," Paul told CPAC. "It really ultimately had to do with presidential power." But on the substance of the scenarios Paul raised during the filibuster -- drone-fired Hellfire missiles raining down on cafes in American towns -- there's no doubt many Republicans thought he was getting a little far out.
Rubio, nearly a decade younger than Paul, delivered a smoother and easier message. "What I sense from a lot of people that I've been talking to is this fear that somehow America has changed, that our people have changed," he said. "I want you to understand that's not true. Our people have not changed." Americans still work hard, still pay their taxes, still volunteer in their hometowns, Rubio said. Yes, the world has changed, particularly the world of technology. But traditions -- traditional marriage, traditional values -- are still good.
"As soon as I'm done speaking, I'll tell you what the criticism on the left will be," Rubio said. " 'He didn't offer any new ideas.' Well, we don't need a new idea. There is an idea. The idea is called America. And it still works.'
The crowd went wild, as Reagan and Goldwater and Helms and Buckley looked on.
One serious problem for the party is that there is no living embodiment of the our-values-live-on message. There's no beloved former president who can stand before the crowd and remind them of the greatness of their cause. Reagan is gone, and George H.W. Bush, respected but not loved like his predecessor, is fading from the scene. The natural candidate for the job, of course, would be George W. Bush, but that's just not possible. While conservatives respect Bush for the job he did protecting the country from terrorist attack after Sept. 11, in many ways they are still struggling to climb out of the hole he dug for them.
Those Democratic events where a beloved Bill Clinton wows the crowd? That can't happen for Republicans. Not until the new leader steps out of the pack.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com.