A friendly debate at CPAC

The nearly five thousand conservative activists who attended this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at Washington’s Omni Shoreham were in a feisty mood when they arrived, and nothing they heard over the next three days did much to calm them down.

The nearly five thousand conservative activists who attended this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at Washington’s Omni Shoreham were in a feisty mood when they arrived, and nothing they heard over the next three days did much to calm them down.

This was the 33rd annual CPAC and featured the likes of Vice President Cheney, Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), George Allen (R-Va.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) as well as Bob Novak, Sam Donaldson, Ann Coulter, keynoter George Will and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). These and others debated and discussed everything from the Iraq war to the National Security Agency wiretaps, the Republican failure to cope with runaway spending and the various approaches to immigration reform with which Congress and the president are grappling.

These conferences are important for a number of reasons. They provide a means of gauging the temperature of the activists who make up the base of the GOP on issues and politicians alike. They have over the years become an essential stop for Republicans seeking conservative support and allow activists from around the country to share notes and views on those politicians who attend and those who don’t.

Those who cover them like to highlight the differences among attendees on various issues and any disagreements they might have with Republican leaders both because controversy is always better news and because some at least seem constantly to be hoping that the conservative movement will either splinter and collapse or abandon the Republicans who count on it on Election Day.

What they don’t seem to understand is that the conservative movement has always been a coalition of economic free-marketeers, social and religious activists concerned about moral values and men and women who focus on and care  about national defense and foreign-policy issues.

Conservatives have never, however, been particularly reticent about airing their disagreements, debating their fellows or making it clear when they believe a politician they admire has made a mistake or is seriously off course. Indeed, at a recent Princeton University conference, “Past, Present and Future of American Conservatism,” a member of the audience got up and began ranting at a panel of conservative thinkers because he felt they were “all over the lot” and “didn’t have a consistent or explicit program” because they “seemed to disagree with each other as often as they agreed.”

I was there, and my first reaction was that the fellow had wandered in off the street and just didn’t like conservatives. It turned out, though, that he was a senior history professor who concluded his rant by contrasting the conservatives’ apparent inability to march in lockstep to whatever wing of liberalism to which he adheres by proclaiming that he and his fellow liberals know exactly where they stand on “all of these issues.”

Though he must travel with a different set of liberals than those I’ve met, he hit inadvertently on what I would argue is the strength of the modern conservative movement, which is the ability or willingness of its various factions to get along with each other at the end of the day.

Thus reporters looking for a “break” with the president found instead that most of those attending the conference really like George Bush and are proud to have voted for him, although they disagree strongly with some of his policies and are frustrated by his unwillingness or inability to deliver on some of the promises they feel he made as he sought the presidency.

It came as no surprise to those of us who organized the conference that most conservatives are less than enthusiastic about the administration’s handling of the immigration problem or the failure of the White House and Congress to come to grips with runaway spending and the continued growth of a government that can’t seem to deliver much but gets in the way of the people who pay for it.

This year, conservatives at CPAC focused on these and other issues. Next year, they will begin to focus on candidates to succeed Bush and those hoping for their support would be well-advised to take note of where they are on the issues.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).