For the past four years, I’ve made my way to Washington D.C. every February to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference, which is better known as CPAC. The event is a fantastic opportunity to network with other conservatives, reconnect with old friends, meet and listen to upcoming political leaders, and meet some of the icons of the conservative movement.
The event also provides an early glimpse of the 2012 presidential field as most, if not all, of them addressed the conference. Whether the entire 2012 field was there or not, it’s going to be a long time until that many Republican presidential hopefuls share the same stage again. Being able to compare the performances of Rick Santorum and Tim Pawlenty or Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney as the race for the nomination begins helps put things in perspective and gauge the development of each candidate.
Looking back at the previous CPACs that I’ve attended, none will probably compare to the first one I attended in 2008. Back then, I didn’t know if it could get much better. President Bush, Vice President Cheney, every presidential candidate, and scores of some of the best-known conservative opinion leaders in America addressed the 2008 conference.
In 2009, when the conservative movement might have been at its lowest point following the election of Barack Obama, CPAC provided hope and optimism. Rush Limbaugh rocked the house that year, and people were buzzing about the event for weeks if not months. Last year, Glenn Beck headlined a CPAC conference that began to take on a more libertarian feel. Still, the event was full of speakers, well-known and not, that simply blew you away.
This year, I return from CPAC a bit disappointed. The ongoing spat about sponsors like GOProud, a homosexual group, has had an affect on the event. In many ways, I think GOProud controversy is blown out of proportion. For those of you who have never attended CPAC, I think its important to note that basically everyone who has a booth in the exhibition center, of which there are hundreds, is considered to be a “sponsor” in CPAC’s eyes. These sponsors are also oftentimes allowed to participate in a panel discussion.
After watching the news coverage before the event, you would have thought that huge GOProud banners would have been hung throughout the hotel or that I would have been inundated by homosexual phernalia. Neither was the case. If the media hadn’t made such a big deal out of it, I doubt that I would have noticed GOProud’s existence.
CPAC 2011 just wasn’t what it used to be, but while people will focus on those who boycotted the event, I think there are bigger reasons why I boarded the airplane in a bit of a funk on Sunday morning. The following are a couple of reason I think CPAC lacked its usual excitement. I also think these are warning signs for the Republican party as a whole going into the 2012 elections.
Conservatives and Republicans were big winners in 2010. They won control the U.S. House of Representatives, made impressive gains in the U.S. Senate, elected a slew of new Republican governors, and made impressive gains in state legislatures across the county. Still, despite a clear message from the voters, Republicans only have the ability to pull the emergency break to prevent President Obama and Democrats from driving our nation off of the cliff. Currently, we don’t have the power to turn things around..
As tea partiers, conservatives, and Republicans flocked to CPAC to celebrate last fall’s victories, they were also hoping to find a vision for the future, and a clue on what we are going to do win again in 2012. For me, many of the speeches at this year’s events were almost carbon copies of those from last year’s conference. Thank goodness the number of teleprompter jokes were cut in half, but for the most part, the content was all the same, and that’s a problem.
Waiting for our Leader
One of the reasons why conservatives and Republicans are struggling to hone their message is because there is no apparent leader within the party or conservative movement. On one side of the political spectrum is Congressman Ron Paul, a non-interventist when it comes to foreign policy who also voted against the federal marriage amendment.
On the other side we have Newt Gingrich, a candidate who focuses on the issues on which most Americans tend to agree. Then there is Romney, the only candidate in the field who avoids talking about Obamacare because he basically came up with the idea. With that set of circumstances, it’s easy to figure out why the conservative message heading into the 2012 campaign is muddled.
Whenever Republicans and conservatives gather, inevitably Ronald Reagan’s three-legged stool of conservatism is discussed. Sadly, the world of politics today lacks the full-spectrum conservatives that would fit this bill. While it’s good to talk about fiscally conservative issues, socially conservative issues, and the need for a strong national defense, there is another three legged-stool that Ronald Reagan possessed that needs to be discussed.
The three legs of this stool are what are needed to make a successful conservative candidate and president. The candidate that we are all in search for needs to be competent, a proven leader, and needs to “get it.”
Reagan possessed all three of theses attributes in 1980, while his opponent, President Carter, didn’t. Just like with Carter, Americans don’t view President Obama as a competent leader who gets what they are going through.
Voters are going to want someone who can simply get the job done, someone they can follow and who will lead them through any crisis. Most of all, Americans want someone who knows what’s at stake, and who can properly identify America’s enemies. Reagan’s sweeping victories were a product of these attributes, and if we want similar successes, we need to find a nominee that fits this bill as well.
So, which 2012 candidate can we put an “X” next to each of those columns? Find out tomorrow when we rank how the candidates did at CPAC.
The Future of the Conservative Movement
Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann kicked off CPAC by stressing the importance of Ronald Reagan’s three-legged stool of conservatism. Newly elected Florida Congressman Allen West concluded the event by talking about the pillars of conservatism. They provided the bookends to a series of 2010 stump speeches that identified the problems, but offered no solutions.
The panel discussions, which do identify solutions, were overshadowed, if not ignored, because of the buzz created by the potential presidential candidates and the start of the 2012 presidential nominating process.
The other elephant in the room was Ronald Reagan. It seems as if CPAC has become a debate over who owns the rights to Reagan. The old bastions of conservatism who live in Washington D.C. have lost control, and I’m not just saying that because Ron Paul has won two consecutive CPAC straw poll victories. The old guard seems to take every opportunity to recall the first CPAC with Reagan at the Mayflower.
I admire these men and women. They earned the “Reaganite” mantle because they were slugging it out with both the liberal Democrats and the liberals who made up the Republican establishment at the time. These leaders deserve plenty of credit because the Goldwater/Reagan/American Enterprise Institute/Heritage Foundation/American Conservative Union revolution was outnumbered by a huge margin, but they kept slugging it out despite the long odds.
What I noticed at CPAC this year is that the icons of the conservative movement, like American Conservative Union’s David Keene, have finally noticed that they no longer serve as the gatekeepers to conservatism that they once were. Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint didn’t need to kiss the ring of certain conservative leaders to gain the status that they have today amongst conservative activists.
It was pretty clear at this year’s CPAC that the members of the tea party of today think they have it figured out. While they might be united in what they oppose, they have yet to agree amongst themselves when it comes to the drafting a platform. One also has to wonder if they would be so brazen if they were outnumbered a hundred to one like the Reaganites of the previous generation.
One thing is for sure – there is a battle being waged on the definition of conservatism. Not only will the 2012 presidential primary decide our next nominee, it may very well decide if the old guard remains, or if change is coming to the leadership of the conservative movement.
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