Like thousands of Republicans, libertarians, conservatives and other folks from the political right I took a trip last week to Washington DC to attend CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, hosted by the American Conservative Union. Not a lot of people from Austin made it there, but I had extra reasons to justify the trip as I was covering the conference for Blogcritics Magazine and also attending the Republican Liberty Caucus convention right afterwards. It also helps that my parents live in DC and I could stay with them white visiting.
CPAC is billed as the biggest gathering of conservatives in the nation and this year they claimed their largest attendance ever at 11,000. I’m not sure I believe their attendance total, but there was certainly a pretty impressive turnout with a lot of big name guests making appearances. Of course, the thing CPAC is most widely known for is their presidential straw poll, which is the first major indicator of which way conservatives are leaning for the next presidential election. More about that later.
CPAC has also become a focus for controversy for a variety of reasons. This year they became the target of activists on the religious right for their policy of including gay conservative groups like GOProud to participate, resulting in a walkout by many social conservatives. By the time the conference was only over for a few days it became the target of controversy again as newly elected ACU Chairman Al Cardenas declared that they would reverse their past policy of inclusion and establish litmus tests for involvement based on positions on social issues, likely excluding all gay groups and many libertarian-leaning groups and tea party groups as well.
This may be a problem for CPAC next year as the attendance this year was heavily dominated by libertarian-leaning groups like Young Americans for Liberty, the Republican Liberty Caucus, Campaign for Liberty and Students for Individual Liberty, who between them turned out more than a third of the total attendance at the convention. If they force the pro-liberty groups out they may have a more traditionally conservative convention, but it will be much smaller and certainly less representative of the spectrum of the political right.
As an attendee, the controversy at CPAC is part of what made it fun. There were arguments in the halls, vocal protests, boorish behavior on all sides, crazy media coverage and a circus-like atmosphere. I spent a lot of my time at the Republican Liberty Caucus booth shaking hands and giving media interviews, but I also got to wander around and talk to members of the various factions represented and get a feel for how diverse and dynamic the right-leaning grassroots really are.
As there is in the Republican Party, there was a clear disconnect between the interests and ideology of the attendees and the kinds of speakers the management thought it would be a good idea to invite. As it turns out, the roster of establishment politicians and pundits brought in to speak had very little in common with the activists who made up the audiences. They represented the political establishment and the attendees were mostly there to talk about and agitate for change and reform. Not surprisingly this resulted in some chaos.
To their credit, the management made some effort to keep conflicting groups separate, at least in the exhibit hall where most of the groups had their main presence. Young Americans for Liberty was as far as possible from Young Americans for Freedom (AKA Young American Fascists). The pro-Israel group with their prominent “Palestinian Wall of Shame” were in a separate room from groups like Muslims for America and the strongly anti-Israel John Birch Society. They also grouped friendly groups together, so there was a libertarian area and a section for religious conservatives. Some of the groups represented were just weird. I’m still trying to figure out the guys wearing red sashes and apparently advocating feudal monarchy and a religious inquisition.
Certainly the high point of the convention for observers and controversy fans came when they presented the Defender of the Constitution award to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld is a fascinating guy and very entertaining, but he’s not known as a Constitutional scholar or even having any particular interest in the document. The irony was not lost on CPAC attendees and the management went out of their way to heighten the tension in a way I can only think was deliberately planned to create controversy and press exposure.
If it had just been Rumsfeld alone, there would have been some mild protests from the growing non-interventionist right. But to really stir things up they scheduled Senator Rand Paul first so that all of his supporters, who tend to be anti-war, would be in the main hall. Then they brought in Dick Cheney, who many Paulistas actively hate, to introduce Rumsfeld. By the time poor Rummy took the stage the audience was whipped into a frenzy, shouting him down, getting dragged out by security and ultimately with almost 400 people walking out in protest. This despite efforts by Ron Paul and Campaign for Liberty to persuade their followers not to engage in any form of demonstration.
There were other small controversies as well. No one came to the Newt Gingrich book signing while literally thousands lined up for Ron Paul’s signature. Governor Gary Johnson almost wasn’t scheduled to speak and finally got a terrible early morning spot. In his speech he declared that he was running for president and then was almost dragged from the stage after only 15 minutes despite protests from the crowd. A small faction of Ron Paul supporters misbehaved in various ways, protesting during several speeches, and then goading Donald Trump into declaring that Paul was not a realistic candidate, which stirred up more controversy. And then Young Americans for Freedom – which I thought had been disbanded in the 1980s – took a leap for big press when they followed the straw poll by announcing that they were kicking Ron Paul off of their board, leading to an inevitable backlash.
But do you know who didn’t cause trouble and wasn’t controversial? GOProud and other gay groups. They didn’t protest, didn’t stir up trouble and behaved like professionals. I got to learn a lot more about them, and it turns out that GOProud aren’t a bunch of radicals. They don’t even support gay marriage or getting rid of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. They’re more socially conservative than many mainstream Republicans, despite being gay.
There was also a lot of controversy raised in the right-wing media about CPAC selling out to Muslim fundamentalists based on the presence of some anti-Israel groups like the John Birch Society, the fact that one of their board members is Grover Norquist whose wife is Arab and because they let a group called Muslims for America attend. Our RLC booth was right next to the Muslims for America booth. I’ve never met a nicer set of young folks. They’re about as uncontroversial as you can get and just want people to understand that not all muslims are terrorists and quite a few of them vote Republican. I felt kind of sorry for them and it was quickly apparent that all the controversy was manufactured hype from the far right fringe.
I got to hob-nob with some minor political celebrities and see some excellent speeches. Rick Perry was there with Michael Williams and both performed well. Perry’s speech was strong and well received and he’s looking very presidential, despite protestations that he’s not running. Talk radio host Herman Cain also made a very strong speech, though it didn’t help him much in the CPAC straw poll. I was also quite impressed with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who seems to be a straight shooter with a lot of good ideas – appealing anyone looking for an alternative to the mediocrity which is Romney. And perhaps the best part is that the unctuous Mike Huckabee chose not to attend and was absolutely not missed at all. I had responsibilities so I couldn’t see all the speeches or shake all the hands I might have wanted, but I spent some time with Governor Gary Johnson and his crew and found him more polished and more appealing than I already knew him to be. If he could go around the country and speak to every voter in person for 10 minutes I’m convinced he’d be our next president.
And, of course, the crowning moment of CPAC was the straw poll which was conducted on Thursday and Friday with the results announced at the end of the conference. Ron Paul won the poll by a sizeable margin, with Mitt Romney coming in a respectable second and Gary Johnson coming in third just ahead of Newt Gingrich and Chris Christie. Perhaps most interesting about the poll was the less publicized section of questions about issues and attitudes, which showed overwhelmingly fiscally conservative and limited government viewpoints among the attendees, along with a desire to downplay divisive social issues.
Almost immediately the spin was out in the media that Paul essentially bought the poll by bringing in ringers to vote and that none of it meant anything, but the truth is that the only voters actually bussed in were brought by Romney and that most of the Paul supporters paid their own way, though at a discounted ticket price. It’s also telling that Gary Johnson, who is arguably even more libertarian than Ron Paul, came in third in the poll ahead of a bunch of establishment candidates, as well as coming in first in the little known poll for second choice. The attendees at the convention skewed very young and very much towards libertarian views, representing the tea party and the grassroot. They responded to candidates who had a message of change and reform.
Various groups tried to counter or balance the results of the straw poll and got some media attention for it. Hot Air did an online poll which produced very different results leaning towards more traditioal conservatives. TownHall has offered a series of monthly polls which seem much closer to realistic Republican primary results and the Republican Liberty Caucus did a straw poll at their own convention right after CPAC where Governor Gary Johnson won first and Ron Paul came in second.
While it remains clear that former Governor Mitt Romney remains the candidate to beat, that was also true of Rudy Giuliani in 2008 and he went nowhere fast. Romney may be the establishment choice and the nominal frontrunner in the Republican primary, but his association with socialized medicine is damning and his efforts at CPAC were fairly feeble. His campaign booth in the exhibit hall was abandonned most of the time and the new slogan he debuted – “Believe in America” – is as bland and unappealing as Romney himself.
CPAC clearly showed that there is enormous diversity on the conservative right and a lot of potential for a dark horse candidate to challenge President Obama. I think that after CPAC the field is still very much open and we can look forward to an exciting primary campaign. What remains to be seen is whether the diverse and divisive right can iron out some of their differences and get behind a candidate with wide acceptability.