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Conservatives' Real Agenda Revealed at CPAC Conference: Love of Torture and Hatred of Obama

Day One of this year's conservafest included a surprise visit by torture advocate #1 Dick Cheney, and the crowd went wild for him.

At first, the opening roster of speakers at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference sounded a common theme: How many ways can conservatives -- a term re-purposed to describe the Tea Party movement -- threaten the establishment of the Republican Party? Given the exuberant response of the CPAC crowd to those who expressed it, you'd be forgiven for thinking you had walked into a gathering of a coherent movement.

Then Dick Cheney, the former vice president, a guardian of the Republican establishment, took the stand in a surprise appearance, and the crowd went wild. When he teasingly said their reception had him thinking about running for office again, they cheered. When he immediately dashed that hope, their deflation was audible.

The speakers preceding the Cheney apparition brought the crowd to their feet decrying government spending and bailouts. The gathering had its own internal, if paranoid, logic. Yet when Cheney appeared, the profligacy and bailout schemes of the Bush administration seemed long forgotten. Never mind that George W. Bush, Cheney's boss and protege, " increased government spending more than any of the six presidents preceding him, including LBJ," according to Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center. (De Rugy, a former research analyst at the Cato Institute and former fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, continues: "In his last term in office, President Bush increased discretionary outlays by an estimated 48.6 percent. During his eight years in office, President Bush spent almost twice as much as his predecessor, President Clinton. Adjusted for inflation, in eight years, President Clinton increased the federal budget by 11 percent. In eight years, President Bush increased it by a whopping 104 percent.")

Opening speaker Marco Rubio, the Tea Party challenger to Charlie Crist, the GOP establishment's candidate for Florida's U.S. Senate seat, not only railed against government spending but recently expressed his opposition to repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that allows for the expulsion of LGBT people from the military. He was followed by Sen. Jim DeMint, who is against everything gay, and has even called for barring gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools.

Later in the program, Dick Armey, the former House Majority Leader and current chairman of the astroturf group, FreedomWorks, graced the stage. He's not exactly a champion of gay rights. (Armey once referred to openly gay Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank as "Barney Fag.")

This is a pretty anti-gay crowd. Anti-gay literature abounds. At the top of an escalator, I was greeted by a young man who sweetly handed me a flier titled, "To Keep Our Honor Clean: Why We Must Oppose the Homosexual Agenda for the Military." Yet no one seemed to notice that Cheney had essentially endorsed the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" this past weekend, when, in an appearance on ABC's "This Week," he noted that times had changed and he was willing to accept the judgment of military leaders, who have expressed a desire to do away with the policy. (Cheney's daughter, Mary, is a lesbian.)

Then there's the Constitution, the Constitution, the beloved Constitution -- a document fetishized by this movement, though perhaps read by few among the ranks. How else to explain the crowd's adulation of Cheney, champion of the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act, a piece of legislation that reduced the Constitution to less than a penumbra of its former self?

Unless, perhaps, there are priorities more important to this crowd than its leaders' stated principles -- priorities that Cheney represents despite his many transgressions against the dogma of the Tea Party nation. Since his departure from the Old Executive Office Building, Cheney has repeatedly sounded two assertions: that torture and other transgressions of human rights keep Americans safe from terrorism; and that President Obama and his administration are incompetent and cowardly in the arena of national security. Those two notions are easily distilled to: torture is patriotic, and Obama is an idiot or something even worse -- a tyrant who wants to take away our right to torture. On those two ideas, virtually all the speakers at today's event could agree.