Keeping CPAC a big tent

As Americans pause this week to remember Ronald Reagan on the 100th anniversary of his birth, thousands of conservative activists are preparing to descend on Washington for the 38th annual CPAC, or Conservative Political Action Conference.

Last year attendance broke 10,000 for the first time, hundreds of thousands watched the proceedings on C-SPAN and nearly a million more Americans watched the conference over the Internet. This year, pre-conference registration is running 15 percent over 2010 numbers.

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Ronald Reagan spoke at the very first conference in 1973 to a mere 125 people. He went on to speak at 17 CPACs as private citizen and president. At CPAC 1975, Reagan delivered his famous speech calling for a Republican Party that would “march under a banner of bold colors rather than pale pastels,” and CPAC 1981 was one of his first stops after his inauguration as president.

As he prepared to attend that conference, the new president was asked, “Why CPAC?” He responded that CPAC’s importance to him and to the movement could never be underestimated, because the folks he spoke to there were the people who made him president. In relating the story during his speech, Reagan paraphrased a country song in saying he believed in “dancing with who brung you.”

CPAC 2011 has attracted more co-sponsors, participating organizations, press and registrants than ever before at a time when conservatives are more active and demanding of the politicians they support. They’ve lived through bad times and good, witnessed electoral victory and defeat, but have never given up on their principles or been driven from the political battlefield by their opponents. CPAC participants share Reagan’s optimism about the future and his concern that all could be lost if conservatives don’t get up each morning willing to advance the principles that unite them.

The modern conservative movement has from its inception been a coalition that brings together men and women who share a basic belief in human freedom, traditional values and a love of country based on an appreciation of the nation’s founding documents. At the same time, they’ve always been a fractious bunch, arguing among themselves over substance, philosophy and strategy.

Ronald Reagan once said that anyone who agreed with us 80 percent of the time should be included in the movement. Likewise, the American Conservative Union ratings classify any member of Congress who votes “right” 80 percent of the time on the legislation on which we base our scores as a conservative.

And yet, conservatives have tried to banish from the movement those with whom they’ve disagreed on issues they consider all-important. William F. Buckley Jr., ecumenical on most questions, conducted a decade-long effort to force followers of Ayn Rand out because of her atheism. Buckley himself was later targeted by some because he came to favor the legalization of marijuana and believed in compulsory national service.

Even the staunchest conservatives disagree on important issues, including trade, immigration, America’s role in the world and the delicate balance between individual rights and national security. Even the best-known conservatives find themselves in a distinct minority on some questions — Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma supports earmarks; Rep. Steve King of Iowa and former Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia ardently support ethanol subsidies.

Many issues are debated at CPAC, and sometimes the movement view on vital issues shifts as a result of those and other debates. In the early days of the movement, for example, most conservatives were “pro-choice.” Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan reflected this view, but eventually most conservatives came to believe in the right-to-life position and support of the pro-life cause has become a consensus position within the movement, though we don’t drive those who disagree with us on this one issue, albeit vital, into the outer darkness.

This year, some religious and social conservatives have raised questions about the propriety of including an organization of gay conservatives, arguing that the group’s mere presence undermines the movement. This in spite of the fact that the group, while differing with the rest of us on issues affecting gays, is firmly conservative on almost all other matters. Those attending the conference will find no weakening of the movement’s consensus belief in traditional marriage or on the movement stance on other issues on which there is a consensus among, say, 80 percent of the movement. 

Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm.