On April 12, in a “cattle call” billed as the start of the 2016 Republican primary season, potential presidential hopefuls and approximately seven hundred party loyalists descended upon Manchester, New Hampshire for the first ever Freedom Summit. The event, co-hosted by Citizens United of Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee fame and the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity (AFP), featured high profile speakers such as Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Newt Gingrich, Mike Lee, Mike Huckabee, and Donald Trump.
The event started off tepidly, as Kelly Ayotte delivered a generic criticism of Obamacare and spoke about retaking the Senate. She seemed anxious and unsure of herself, resulting in a weak delivery that was incomprehensible at times; it was readily apparent that she felt uncomfortable. However, the party faithful liked what she had to say, even though she sometimes appeared insincere, attempting to pander to the base.
The following speaker, Mike Lee, was much more personable and delivered a much better speech. Lee, often overshadowed by the ideologically similar Paul and Cruz, was surprisingly effective and engaging, delivering an intellectual speech that did not stoop to demagoguery like many other speakers. He started with an amusing story about how a Capitol Police officer once mistook him for one of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s staffers, which transitioned into a talk about the importance of standing up for our rights. He harkened back to the Revolutionary War and delivered a rousing affirmation of his philosophy of limited government.
However, it was clear that the stars of the event were Paul and Cruz. Many attendees were there just to see those two, as a fair number of people left after their speeches. Paul entered the stage to an incredibly enthusiastic audience response and immediately dove into the core of his message. He emphasized the attacks on our civil liberties and called upon us to stand and fight and be ever bolder in protecting the entire Bill of Rights. Paul decried indefinite detention and NSA surveillance, as is his wont.
However, the thrust of his speech spoke of expanding the party’s base while condemning what he called “diluting our message” and becoming “Democrat-lite.” In some unusual messaging for a Republican, he attacked corporate subsidies and mentioned how the party must not be the party of “fat cats, rich people, and Wall Street.” He quoted Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and talked about social justice, pushing for drug sentencing reform and compassion for the poor and unemployed.
Overall, Paul’s speech was unexceptional compared to what he has said previously. That is not to say that his speech was not excellent; his message and delivery were impeccable. It is just that he has delivered similar speeches across the country and treated the audience to not much more than his standard stump.
Even more so than Paul, Cruz was treated like a rock star. He entered the room to Eye of the Tiger and such a thunderous standing ovation (lasting close to a minute) that he had to cut off the audience—twice—to start his speech. When Cruz joked that his daughter had been talking to the Republican leadership that more or less wants him dead, an attendee shouted, “You are the leadership!” to great audience approval. Overall, Cruz focused on a more abstract core message of liberty and economic opportunity. However, he still delivered plenty of visceral one-liners for the audience, with attendees cheering wildly when he suggested abolishing the IRS and repealing Obamacare.
Although Cruz delivered a good speech—funny, witty, and sharp—he unfortunately resorted to demagoguery at times. As the only speaker who meandered around the stage and did not use the podium, his forceful delivery came across as preachy. Indeed, with his sprinkling of religious rhetoric, more so than any other speaker, he seemed to be more like a preacher than a politician. He called upon audience members to spread his message across the country much like a religion.
Laura Ingraham followed, delivering a fiery speech while also hinting that Huckabee would announce a presidential bid. Huckabee, the last speaker, unfortunately appeared angry and out of touch. Quips about how North Korea is in some respects freer than the United States are amusing but also bizarre and self-defeating. Despite bringing up some legitimate conservative arguments, his speech was consistently tinged the most polarizing rhetorical possible (comparing liberals at one point to “rats and roaches”), which would alienate anyone outside of the room. If anything, Huckabee proved that he was unelectable. It did not matter, however, as Huckabee did not actually have a major announcement. He simply wanted the audience to stay.
The event also headlined Marsha Blackburn, Louie Gohmert, Steve King, and Arthur Brooks while featuring numerous other local politicians. Many speakers talked about some common themes. New Hampshire was not only repeatedly mentioned as the first-in-the-nation primary state, but also the “Live Free or Die” state with no income or sales tax. The audience cheered wildly at the repeated mentions of taking the Senate from the Democrats and toppling Harry Reid from his Majority Leader perch. Similarly, many speakers denounced the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups and suggested ending the IRS with the implementation of either a FairTax or a flat tax. Speakers consistently bashed Obamacare and Common Core, while a few other speakers referred to the ongoing standoff between the Bureau of Land Management and cattle rancher Cliven Bundy as an example of government overreach.
The audience was clearly energized throughout the entire six hour event, cheering on speakers and delivering standing ovation after standing ovation. Many attendees wore accoutrements from Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign, the Free State Project, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul. Speakers dished out plenty of red meat for the base, with Pelosi, Reid, Biden, and Obama jokes aplenty. Pelosi was referred to as “San Fran Old Gran,” while Cruz memorably joked that Obama missed the sixth grade School House Rock video on how a bill becomes a law. AFP and Citizens United are considering hosting Freedom Summits across the nation, especially in early primary states, depending on the success of the inaugural New Hampshire event. And I have to say, the first ever Freedom Summit was certainly a success.