The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an annual gathering of right-wingers of all stripes, is often a raucous game of competition between various wings of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.
While the same tensions were on display, beginning on Thursday with an opening salvo by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), at this year’s CPAC—conservatives versus “the GOP establishment,” religious-right types versus libertarians—the customary giddiness was missing from the jousting, now with the 2014 midterm election campaigns for Congress well underway.
But some things never do change. As it has ever been, CPAC is a man’s game, even as leaders of the Republican Party, in the wake of its unprecedented assault on women’s rights and reproductive justice over the last four years in state legislatures and in the U.S. House of Representatives, seek to convince women that the party knows what’s best for them.
Of the 25 speakers featured on the website for this year’s conference, three are women.
Of the 2,459 CPAC registrants who participated in the conference’s annual presidential straw poll this year, 63 percent are men, and 37 percent are women. (Sen. Rand Paul [R-KY] won.)
Yet when Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and the first Republican woman to run on a presidential ticket, took the stage as CPAC’s big closer Saturday, she devoted about one-third of her speech to refuting charges by Democrats of a Republican “war on women.”
After complaining that liberals had “gotten their panties in a wad” and their “skirts tangled up over their heads” after Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame expressed “his devout Christian views on a television show about his devout Christian family” (actually, Robertson said that “homosexuality” leads to bestiality), Palin complained that the same “fainting-couch liberals” who got Robertson suspended from his show are “whining that we disrespect women.”
“They seem to think that the women of America are cheap dates,” Palin said. “Feed ‘em a few lines about that free birth control, throw in some scary quotes about the war on women, and they will be yours.”
Palin was apparently referring to the requirement by the Department of Health and Human Services that health-care plans offered by employers to employees as part of their compensation cover prescription contraceptives with no co-payment, which does not make the prescriptions “free,” but rather items covered by the insurance premium, whose cost, in most employer-employee arrangements, is paid partly if not fully by the employee.
The “war on women” is a broad term that is generally understood to refer to Republican opposition to the contraception insurance mandate, the target of two Supreme Court cases, and a Republican-led offensive against abortion access that has seen more restrictions passed at the state level in the last two years than in the two decades that preceded them.
The former governor, in her “cheap date” remarks, echoed a theme noted by Rewire’s Emily Crockett in a speech delivered earlier that day by CPAC Co-Chair Carly Fiorina.
Palin called Republican women a “sisterhood” that claims as its matriarchs Margaret Thatcher, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. “Oh, this sisterhood so believes in and respects the power and purposeful potential of every woman, so much so that we’re the party with the plank that protects even our littlest sisters—in the womb,” she said.
She painted President Barack Obama and Democrats as those who are “enticing girls to think that they need these guys to grow government to take care of them.” Enticing.
Pretending to speak only to the women in the room (after telling the men to play a video game on their cell phones), Palin said, “Girls, we know better than to fall for that victimization line from the president and his party. … I know you know better, but if you have a friend or a sister or a roommate falling for this hooey, ya gotta set ‘em straight. Ask them, who’s really stereotyping you? Is it the people who believe that you are a thinking, achieving, striving, strong individual, or those who put you in a box and they define you still by body parts?”
She suggested that supporting Obama and the Democrats might be the kind of thing one might not feel so great about in the morning.
“Women, don’t let them use you, unless you choose to be their political pawn, or just your piece of accessory on their arm,” Palin said, emphasizing the first syllable of “accessory” and pronouncing it like “ass-essory.”
“Honey, that’s not liberation; that’s subjugation,” she added.
The speech was classic Palin, this time complete with a bad parody of Green Eggs and Ham:
I do not like this Uncle Sam
I do not like his health-care scam…
I won’t torment you with the rest.
Of course, her remarks were rife with barbs at the president. When she wasn’t painting him as a player looking for a cheap date, she took swipe at his manliness, especially in contrast to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, joking that Obama might poke the Russian with his pen.
“The only way to stop a bad guy with a nuke is a good guy with a nuke,” she said, paraphrasing an oft-repeated line delivered earlier that day by Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association, about how best to stop a bad guy with a gun. (More guns, naturally.)
At the beginning of Palin’s speech, members of the media were given flyers advertising Palin’s new television show, Amazing America, scheduled to begin on April 3 on the Sportsman Channel, a sort of all-guns-all-the-time cable outfit (except on Friday, which is apparently archery day, and Sunday, which features some fishing shows).
Throughout the conference, speakers had a funny way of showing their appreciation for women. In what was billed as an homage to Firing Line, the long-ago debate show hosted by the late William F. Buckley, author and rhetorical bomb-thrower Ann Coulter debated blogger and author Mickey Kaus, who was billed as a liberal, an assertion many liberals view as debatable in and of itself. (Video here.) Coulter, one of the few women to grace the CPAC stage, suggested that the shaming of poor people is a good thing, and that it should not be shameful to say to poor people “keep your knees together before you’re married.” (By “poor people,” she apparently meant poor women. Rich people on the other hand, do what you please.)
Coulter also suggested that if immigration reform passes, those who supported it should submit themselves to “death squads.”
The day before, Fox News host and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who recently suggested that the only kind of women who wanted birth control from “Uncle Sugar” were those who couldn’t “control their libidos,” brought fire and brimstone to the CPAC stage, citing a quote from Ruth Bell Graham, wife of evangelist Billy Graham, who, according to Huckabee, said that God would have to apologize to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities said to have been destroyed by God for sexual iniquity, “if He did not bring fiery judgment on the United States of America.”
Huckabee was introduced by Rev. James Robison, whose anti-choice ministry is based on the fact that he was conceived in rape.
Later in the day, Huckabee hosted a screening of his 2012 anti-choice movie The Gift of Life, which was produced by Citizens United, the group for which the 2010 Supreme Court decision is named.
On an all-woman panel titled, “Why Conservatism is Right for Women: How Conservatives Should Talk About Life, Prosperity & National Security,” Crystal Wright of the Conservative Black Chick blog complained that the leadership of the Republican Party wasn’t doing enough to recruit women to run for Congress. (Video here.) But the same could have been said for the leadership of CPAC, and its failure to recruit women speakers.
Robin Abcarian, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, did a count of all the speakers on the CPAC stage (not just the 25 featured speakers mentioned at the beginning of this article), and found that of the 163 speakers and panelists on the CPAC 2014 schedule, only 35 were women.
“That’s a 57-point gender gap, people,” Albercain wrote. “If Republicans have any hope of stopping the Democrats’ blockbuster narrative that they are waging a war on women, they must first solve their own war of attrition on women.”
Or, they could try Palin’s approach.
“C’mon libs, can you really sing, ‘I am woman, hear me…’?” she asked, singing that half a line rather badly. “No, because donkeys just bray. Only Mama Grizzlies can say, ‘Hear me roar.’”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Los Angeles Times columnist Robin Abcarian’s last name. We regret the error.