NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The largest annual gathering of right-leaning activists reflected the uneasy period of transition and reinvention that the entire conservative movement has been experiencing since the election of President Obama in 2008. The Conservative Political Action Conference, though it skews younger and more northern, is still a reflection of where the Republican Party is headed.
CPAC started four decades ago as an activist centered conference but it has become a mega-media event that draws an astounding number of journalists from around the world. Many are there just to interview the crazy people in funny hats or shout about the Constitution while wearing colonial garb that appears at major political events. A fellow journalist told me an idea they had where one would go to a major conservative gathering dressed in a Minuteman costume just to see what kind of attention they get from the press. I do not have solid numbers but going by what I saw it seemed like an astounding level of credentialed press for an annual rah-rah political event during a non-election year.
For some reason the organizers decided to throw the conservative bloggers in with the regular media, creating a weird vibe for those of us in the press unaccustomed to cheers and boos from a press gallery. Throughout the weekend rose-tinted bloggers would applaud the stunningly high level of red meat thrown at them from the podium in the ballroom.
Controversial fringe movement figures like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump drew sustained and loud applause while bomb throwers like Ann Coulter brought the house down with caustic remarks about immigration. Meanwhile, the focus of Coulter’s wrath, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, was excluded due to lack of ideological purity. Gay and lesbian conservatives were discouraged from attending, too, while the anti-marriage equality folks repositioned themselves to better defend a position that has become increasingly unpopular. Social conservatives haven’t lost all their battles in the movement though. Opposition to abortion is still very high among the activists I talked to, even those that back marriage equality.
Meanwhile, Rand Paul fully cemented his status as a rock star within the broader center-right world in American politics. Fresh off his much maligned and criticized filibuster over Obama’s drone policy, Paul was ready to take his dad’s title as America’s most prominent libertarian. (Sorry, Penn Jillette.) Paul did well but some of the less libertarian activists I spoke with wondered what he would do next to keep this momentum going and, more importantly, draw broad support across the right.
It is hard to tell right now if Paul’s brand of libertarianism will continue to expand its footprint in the Republican Party. He’s different from his father in that he’s a bridge builder and interested in politicking, something Ron never seemed very inclined to do. If gays and lesbians are welcomed back with open arms at CPAC 2014 then I think we’ll have a better idea of the progress his young Rothardian supporters have made.
Well organized libertarians and tea partiers have done a very good job of taking over a huge chunk of CPAC in the last four years and turning it into a circus of awesome proportions, alienating two of the three major wings of the conservative movement in the process. This alienation is part of the awkward transition the Republican Party and conservatives are going through as a result of being out of the White House for four years. Now, as conservatives move forward as a group, they’re not sure which direction they should go.
Four years ago young libertarians had limited options for places to go to develop and grow as political players but today that is no longer the case, in large part because of this three day conference and the huge media it attracts. This steady takeover has led to a somewhat diminished role for the conference but perhaps only temporarily as CPAC will likely be a player in 2015 – perhaps even 2014 – when the 2016 cycle starts up and the Republicans really try to find themselves. Again.
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