And CPAC was where, on the heels of his landslide presidential reelection a decade later, Reagan proclaimed: “The tide of history is moving irresistibly in our direction. Why? Because the other side is virtually bankrupt of ideas.”
This year, CPAC will once again capture the mood of conservatism in the United States — bewildered, dysfunctional and struggling to find its moorings after two consecutive GOP presidential losses.
It remains the biggest event on the calendar for conservative activists.
“There will be somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 people here. When Reagan was president, 2,000 was a big meeting,” said Grover Norquist, an anti-tax advocate who is on the board of the American Conservative Union, which sponsors the conference. “This is like Woodstock for conservatives.”
But most of the early buzz around the conference has centered on who was invited to speak and who was snubbed.
Among those not chosen for coveted spots on the three-day schedule were two top GOP presidential prospects for 2016: Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, who violated conservative orthodoxy by backing a transportation initiative that raises taxes, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who headlined a CPAC gathering in Chicago last June but has since discomfited Republicans by cozying up to President Obama after Hurricane Sandy and turning his trademark tough talk on his own party.
Chosen to appear, meanwhile, were two reminders of failed presidential campaigns: Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee, and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the party’s 2008 vice-presidential pick.
Also booked is Donald Trump, a font of anti-Obama conspiracy theories whose role in politics these days is something like that of a rodeo clown, a colorful and comic diversion.
“The notion that CPAC is the keeper of conservatism is just dead wrong. It is more like some kind of reality show,” GOP strategist Steve Schmidt said. “It’s become a spectacle at a time when the Republican Party and conservative movement need renewal.”
Former House speaker and 2012 presidential contender Newt Gingrich (Ga.) is also set to speak, although he recently told radio host Laura Ingraham: “I don’t know what the purpose of CPAC is anymore. . . . CPAC at one time was sort of the militant wing of the conservative movement.”
But look beyond the lineup of big-name speakers, and the schedule reveals surprising agenda items for such a gathering — propositions that organizers view as a return to the roots of conservatism and a possible way forward.
On Thursday, for example, there will be a panel titled, “Too Many American Wars? Should We Fight Anywhere and Can We Afford It?”