When the annual conference of the Conservative Political Action Committee convened in Washington last week, it was supposed to be a showcase of likely Republican presidential candidates. More than 10,000 eager activists showed up, and nearly as many presidential hopefuls. But the proceedings felt less like a political forum and more like a circus when the clown car came rolling in: Candidates just kept on emerging and saying silly things.
The one who stole the show was Donald Trump, which underscores the lack of excitement about the GOP field. Trump was a late addition to the speakers' roster, probably because no one realized he was a candidate, or even a Republican. No matter. Trump took the stage to raucous applause and delivered, with his trademark squinting braggadocio, a speech that alternated lavish praise for Donald Trump with denunciations of various and sundry enemies. Plenty of candidates invoked Chinese menace and terrors of the new health care law. Only Trump declared his antipathy for Somali pirates.
He stopped short of formally entering the race. While other conservatives highlighted their years of public service and devotion to the cause, Trump chose a different approach, telling the crowd with characteristic modesty, "I'm known for my candor, I've had a lot of great victories, and I may be willing to put that to work'' on behalf of the Republican Party.
He got one of the wildest receptions of any speaker.
But don't count on him emerging as a viable candidate. His sudden interest in the GOP nomination is almost certainly just one more grasp for publicity. He flirted with presidential runs in 2008 and 2000. Back then, he styled himself a pro-choice savior of the Reform Party. Now, Trump has recast himself as a God-fearing social conservative. "I'm pro-life,'' he told the crowd. "I'm against gun control, and I will fight to end ObamaCare.'' At least he understands the art of the deal.
When it was pointed out that Trump's earlier positions and tabloid-friendly lifestyle don't quite fit the profile of a social conservative, his lawyer (who has founded the website ShouldTrumpRun.com) dismissed any suggestion that this might pose a problem for his famous client, telling National Journal: "People change their positions all the time, the way they change their wives.''
For these reasons and many more, the political press corps has mostly ignored Trump, which is the appropriate response. (You never want to encourage.) Still, we have a job to do. Sportingly, I reached out to a handful of campaign consultants in both parties to see what he would have to do to be taken serious as a candidate. None dignified my message with a reply, which is its own answer.
Trump's appearance at CPAC did not entirely lack constructive effect. Sure, he'll never be president. But ticking through all the reasons for why that is so reveals as much about the weakness of the broader GOP field as it does about Trump's hilarious compilation of self-publicized personal shortcomings.
Ideological apostasy? Mitt Romney is the current frontrunner. Adultery followed by an ugly divorce? Hasn't stopped Newt Gingrich. The tawdry stain of reality television celebrity? Meet Sarah Palin. General kookiness? Ron Paul won the CPAC straw poll in a rout. The truth is, from naked ambition to raging id to his breathtaking combover, Trump has more in
common with the "legitimate'' contenders than they would probably care to dwell on.
The same goes for the audience. It seems a bit odd that conservative activists ostensibly committed to taking back the White House and America from President Obama's job-killing socialist tyranny would think it a good idea to celebrate someone who is more famous for firing people in front of a nationwide television audience than for finding jobs for them amid a grinding recession.
Give Trump this much, though: he's certainly doing his part to provide comic relief. He's also getting some free publicity for the next season of "Celebrity Apprentice,'' which kicks off in a few weeks.
By a remarkable coincidence, Trump says he'll decide about running in June -- right before sweeps. He may be deluding himself about his chance at the White House. But he isn't the only one, and he's probably getting more out of it.
Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.