CPAC organizers confront critics over vision of ‘mainstream’ conservatism

Organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) are rejecting criticism that their vision of conservatism is too narrow and risks limiting the movement’s future appeal.

“It’s the Conservative Political Action Conference — if something falls outside the mainstream of what has always been defined as conservatism, then that viewpoint is probably not going to be widely expressed, if at all,” said Gregg Keller, executive director of the American Conservative Union (ACU), which hosts the three-day event beginning Thursday near Washington, D.C. 

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The ACU, Keller said, is “a fusionist conservative organization, which is to say we are a coalition of fiscal, social and national security conservatives.” 

But that definition may be part of CPAC’s problem.

The conference’s critics — and the list is long and growing — contend organizers are clinging to an outdated brand of conservatism, one that worked in Ronald Reagan’s time but no longer includes all aspects of the modern movement.

The activists attending CPAC will be grappling with how rigidly conservatives should adhere to the movement’s three long-standing pillars, all of which are being challenged to some extent. 


Cultural conservatives are being confronted with a growing number of younger activists — and even some party elders — who are embracing gay marriage. That tension was reflected in the conservative, pro-gay-rights group GOProud’s decision not to apply to attend the conference, expecting it would be declined.

National security hawks, too, are seeing their dominance challenged by libertarians, led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who advocate a less interventionist U.S. foreign policy. 

The willingness of congressional Republicans to allow Defense Department sequestration cuts to take effect also signaled that military spending is not the sacred cow it once was on the right. 

There’s even division among fiscal conservatives who champion limited government. 

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), long a favorite of grassroots conservatives, was excluded from CPAC after embracing a transportation tax in his state. 

ACU Chairman Al Cardenas revealed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R ) wasn’t invited this year because of his support for expanded Medicare and a Hurricane Sandy aid package in his state.

In Congress, Republicans agreed to a “fiscal cliff” deal that ended Bush-era tax rates for high income earners. 

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, voted for the fiscal-cliff legislation, and some Senate Republicans say they might be willing to support more tax revenue as part of a grand bargain to reduce the deficit.

The schisms in the movement are apparent among CPAC’s featured speakers, who range from populist Tea Party favorites like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to establishment figures like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. 

Other high-profile Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio.), New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, declined invitations. 

The absence of Martinez and Haley, in particular, stoked talk that CPAC could be considered a hindrance to the future political aspirations of new-generation Republican leaders.

Keller insists the speakers reflect ideological diversity in the movement, but critics charge the lineup at this year’s conference is a rehash of the old guard Republicans who cost the GOP the White House and seats in both chambers in 2012.

CPAC’s decision to invite Palin and Donald Trump — two of the most polarizing figures on the right — prompted questions about the event’s relevance. 

“I’m not sure what CPAC’s up to. They’ve done a pretty good job of being as non-inclusive as possible by not including the two most popular GOP governors in the country (Christie and McDonnell). They must be looking for a generation from 1925 to support them,” said John Feheery, a GOP strategist and columnist for The Hill.

The conference has made efforts to expand the movement’s appeal this year with an increase in racial diversity and more female speakers than ever before, organizers said. 

The conference’s theme – “The Next Generation of Conservatives” — is an acknowledgement of the movement’s need to adapt. 

Panels on “Winning with Generation X/Y” and “Conservative Inclusion: Promoting the Freedom Message to All Americans” will give attendees the chance to discuss ways to attract new supporters.

The conference also features panels on “expanding the conservative movement within the Hispanic community” and creating a “lasting immigration policy.”

Keller said there’s room for the movement to evolve.

“It’s part reflection on where we find the conservative movement today, and it’s part reflection on where we collectively as a movement believe the conservative movement needs to go,” he said.

Feehery said the challenge facing activists is to show voters that conservatism works for ordinary people.

“You’ve got to put conservative principles into action, and you’ve got to prove that conservative principles can govern,” he said.

By excluding Christie and McDonnell — who provide examples of conservative governance at work — Feehery said the ACU could be “shooting themselves in the foot.” 

The controversy surrounding GOProud exemplifies another problem in the movement — the perception in some quarters that conservatism caters to a select few, namely older white men.

The danger is that the movement will lack appeal to younger conservatives, who have favored Democrats in recent elections, and who are less concerned with social issues.

“I believe a Republican Party that is more tolerant and dedicated to keeping the government out of people’s lives as much as possible would be more appealing to the rising generation,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wrote in an op-ed on the website PolicyMic.

The pro-gay-rights conservative group will in fact appear at the conference. The Competitive Enterprise Institute invited GOProud’s executive director to sit on one of the group’s panels. 

Fred Smith,  the institute’s president, said, “I think others think of [the decision not to invite GOProud] as a mistake.”

“There’s a tendency, I think, of all groups to be overly leery about covering controversial subjects, and the result of that is sounding exclusionary. And if there’s anything conservatives need, it’s to not sound exclusionary,” he told The Hill.

If conservatives are seen as exclusive, potential supporters could tune out, Smith said. 

“People don’t care what we know until they know we care,” he said.