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February, 27th 2009

The disappointment that is CPAC and the state of conservatism

– Liz Mair

It's CPAC week here in DC, and as much as I hate to say it, this post written almost two weeks ago by Rick Moran over at The Next Right is really ringing true for me right now:

The theme of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) should be “Cocooning our way to Irrelevancy” or perhaps “How to lose the next 5 elections in 10 easy steps.”

OK, "Cocooning our way to Irrelevancy but enjoying catching up with friends" might be more appropriate in my view.  But seriously, Moran points out that the notion underlying the conference is that:

there isn’t much really wrong with conservatism that a dab of message clarification here and a spot of renewed enthusiasm there won’t cure.

This seems about right, I am sorry to say.  I haven't spent more than three hours per day up in the environs of CPAC as yet (tomorrow will likely be a different story), but one of the things that's really stood out to me is how the same people who have been running the GOP/conservative movement-- both without success and, more importantly, without real prospect of it-- for years, decades, even, are still some of the big dogs one sees making the rounds, delivering speeches, manning panels and running the side events.  There are plenty of college kids and young Republican types (as there always are at these things).  But apart from that, there seems to be little fresh, young blood, and certainly not a lot that seems "different" in any way.  Moran pointed to certain speakers as evidence of the "more of the same" attitude that seems largely pervasive at the conference, but he missed so many (and so many otherwise featured attendees) for my taste that I feel the need to offer a list.  Can someone please tell me, in all seriousness, whether these people seem like individuals who have a deep and/or plausible understanding of how to make conservatism (which for the purpose of this post, I'm treating as a loose category arguably encompassing libertarianism, which is more my bag) appealing again, including to younger Americans who are overwhelmingly unconvinced by right-leaning ideology, whether in a way that helps win elections, or philosophical and policy debates, or both? [intro]

- John Bolton

- Bay Buchanan

- Joe the Plumber

- Rep. Virginia Foxx

- Rep. Mike Pence

- Rep. Chris Smith (and, I suspect, the rest of his panel)

- ex-Rep. Ernie Istook

- Rep. Michelle Bachmann

- ex-Rep. Tom Tancredo

- Phyllis Schlafly (note: Mrs Schlafly did not speak, and although I disagree with her on many issues, I do send my best thoughts and wishes her way as I would to any 85 year-old woman recovering from a broken hip)

- Stephen Baldwin

- Karl Rove (yes, Karl Rove)

- ex-Sen. Rick Santorum

- Ann Coulter (duh-- why is she back, again?)

- Rush Limbaugh

I could go on.  But this list should suffice.

Let me be clear: I agree with some of these people on some things (even a broken clock is right twice a day, and one or two on this list are right, say, closer to four or five times a day).  But overall, they're not people I trust to figure out how to reform conservatism, which is, as Moran points out, really what we should be talking about, not just improving message discipline or better explaining why "we" (I'm using this term loosely and not wholeheartedly) "think" (because there's a bigger dearth of thinking right now than I'd like among conservatives) that Obama is a "communist" (because he's not, he just happens to be wrong on certain areas of policy that tend to matter to libertarians, conservatives and some moderates).

There are people I do trust with this, or at least am willing to treat as potentially having something interesting and/or useful (and better yet, not totally predictable) to say about how the greater conservative movement moves forward, principally including:

- Rep. Paul Ryan

- Michael Barone

- Sen. Bob Corker

- the Conservative Hispanic Coalition panel

- Joe Scarborough and Tucker Carlson (Tucker!!!)

- RNC Chair Michael Steele (who I like, despite his civil union comments with which I took issue earlier this week)

- the conservative tecchy people, on the whole

- Rep. Ron Paul (yes, really)

- Gov. Mark Sanford

- Gov. Tim Pawlenty

- the Hollywood conservatives

- SE Cupp and Brett Joshpe (authors of "Why You're Wrong About The Right"-- I hope they're right, as opposed to the "you"s of their book's title, but honestly, the CPAC lineup isn't doing a heck of a lot to convince me of it).

You may say this is a balanced list-- the number of Fs and As are similar.  Yes, well, there are a lot of folks left off this list who I wouldn't describe as really having very little or nothing to contribute, but who I wouldn't at all put on a par with those listed immediately above.  Cases in point include Mitt Romney (yes, back to that, but seriously, "We're going to have to fight harder than ever before to make sure that America stays America" is the same kind of uber-lame statement that utterly failed to convince me in the run-up to the 2008 primary process, which is, incidentally, the real story with Romney: Unless he hits the proverbial refresh button, he is yesterday's news, pure and simple).  Mike Huckabee is another example (I totally disagree with him on many, many issues, but actually like him personally and think he's appealing, personality-wise; the trouble is, when one of the highlights of his speech was apparently talking about a dog peeing in a box... well, you see where I'm going).  But this is not really saying much positive.  You'd think that the country's preeminent conservative conference might be able to muster a bigger, better slate of more appealing, cutting-edge, forward-thinking conservatives.  Sadly not... and that's the point.

The topics that are a focal point of the conference are also a disappointment, and underline the "same old, same old" (emphasis on "old") theme:

- Timeless Principles, New Challenges: The Future of the Conservative Movement (for the record, new challenges = not getting our butts handed to us on a platter in 2010, or even 2012; the trouble is, I suspect that a full serving of what are typically categorized as "timeless principles" ahead of the next election won't work, and yet this is undoubtedly what was being touted here)

- The Key to Victory? Listen to Conservatives (seriously... I'm all for listening to conservatives, but you know what?  Listening to them doesn't equal a pathway for putting 50% plus one votes on the table)

- New Challenges in the Culture War (here's a challenge for you: how to make fighting the culture war appear like anything other than a holdover of the 1970s).

You get my point.

Now, I know many of my conservative friends and fellow bloggers will say, OK, enough (predictable Liz) whining, what would have been an improvement?  Well, here are some brief thoughts:

- focus more not on the fact that American pop culture (i.e., Hollywood) is a place where conservative and libertarian thinking and ideology are radically outside the mainstream, but rather on the question of "why" and whether there is anything that can be done about it (and what that might be).  Clearly, I think it's easier to discuss this by reference to liberal thinking versus libertarian thinking, but the point still stands.

- try to devote some attention to policy topics of great significance that actually impact our ability to project serious solutions to top-line problems.  Yes, I don't like the idea of the fairness doctrine.  I really, really don't.  But I'd be much more interested in conservatives, libertarians and Republicans discussing in serious terms how we solve the actual financial crisis (by which I do not mean the overall economic crisis, which in my opinion evolved from this and won't really be solved without a serious effort to fix the financial crisis, which seems like a toxic topic right now).  I would like to have seen more of a focus on health care, also, and frankly, at some point I think the GOP and conservatives are going to need to start having a discussion about the environment that goes beyond repeating, lots and lots, that global warming isn't happening.  Maybe have a session directed at students where someone (Tim Pawlenty, perhaps?) talks about conservative solutions to the problem of very expensive college tuition costs, which worry most families, students and recent graduates.

- get more young faces, and people keen to pass the torch to the next generation, in the door and put them in more prominent positions, as far as the agenda is concerned-- even if they're not rock-ribbed conservatives (heck, I'm not).  I don't agree with everything Ross Douthat has to say, but I'm sure whatever it is will be more relevant to moving forward than what Rick Santorum had to say.  Very few people were buying what he was selling in 2006, when he at least had the advantage of high name ID and familiarity garnered via incumbency.  What are the odds anyone more is going to buy it now?

Don't get me wrong: I still enjoy CPAC and think it's worthwhile, for me personally.  But this year, that's largely been because of the familiar faces I am encountering there, not because I'm deriving a lot of intellectual inspiration or stimulation from what is on offer (apart from various friends' company).  That's good enough to get me there, but it's not good enough to turn around a movement that is failing right now, I'm afraid.  Those concerned with fixing things should bear that in mind before CPAC 2010 rolls around.

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