Yesterday, conservatives of all stripes launched an assault on CPAC. The trigger was the group’s invitation to Donald Trump, a self-promoting and unserious person whose politics can at best be described as eclectic (at worst, unhinged birtherism with a strong dose of trade protectionism). In blogs and on Twitter, conservatives found some unity, ironically, in decrying the actions of a group that once fancied itself as the umbrella organization of the conservative movement. A new hashtag #CPACisdead said it all.
Trump was the trigger, but the fuse was burning with the decisions to exclude prominent conservatives such as Govs. Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell and the conservative gay group GOProud. Whether turnout at CPAC will be low or whether it survives at all is in question.
What constructive lessons can conservatives and those who observe them learn?
1. There is more sanity on the right than the mainstream media and liberals (I repeat myself ) think. There is more yearning to project an inviting face and a defensible agenda than we’ve seen in recent years. Those who think conservatives will never change or haven’t learned anything from 2008 and 2012 losses aren’t talking to enough (any?) conservatives.
2. An older generation, tone deaf and out of step with popular sensibilities, needs to hang it up. Had CPAC been in the hands of young, brainy conservatives, it would be the “cool” club and not a punch line.
3. Conservatives are tired of being called bigots and intolerant. GOProud’s exclusion struck a chord, both because this is a group actually devoted to conservative economic and legal positions (unlike a more widely known gay group on the right) and because the group was not asking for any endorsement of or seeking to push gay marriage at the event. (If anything, this group has generally seen this as a state issue.) It was, therefore, the easiest possible case for conservatives to push back against the CPAC denizens who threw them out. (Recall that GOProud was previously invited to, attended and co-sponsored CPAC in 2011.)
4. There most definitely is a generation gap between younger and older conservatives that manifests itself most vividly on social issues and media adeptness. There is reason for optimism as the old guard fades from the scene.
5. Groups or positions that may seem in ascendancy in reality may be fragile. It doesn’t take much to reach the tipping point.
6. For that reason, conservatives should err on the side of candor with and about one another, not forgoing an opportunity for a needed course correction. Yes, the disagreements with one another can be as important as those with the left, although the tone and degree of fervor are different. By that I mean, when the opportunity arises to change the balance of forces within the movement and/or its leadership, those who want conservatism to survive should seize the opportunity. And of course, elected officials deserve to be held accountable.
7. The loudest voices and the ones held up as “conservatives” by the mainstream media aren’t necessarily the most forward-looking or capable ones.
8. When a party is in the minority it has to add, not subtract. CPAC’s cardinal sin was in foolishly trying to toss out others instead of building the broadest coalition.
9. Conservatives sense President Obama and Democrats are momentarily on defense after the sequester hysteria. They don’t want to and shouldn’t blow it by making themselves the subject of ridicule.
10. Perhaps gatherings for the sake of gathering have lost their utility. Self-appointed purists meeting among themselves may be a disaster waiting to happen, cementing bad habits, rather than working to innovate and expand the movement.
In sum, this is a heartening event for those seeking to update and revive the right.