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Opinion This year’s CPAC lineup speaks volumes about the conservative movement

Supporters cheer as former president Donald Trump departs after speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando on Feb. 28, 2021. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference has always been a window into the state of the Republican Party’s movement conservative wing. This year’s lineup shows a party attempting to marry pre-Trump conservatism with Trumpian style. And what’s missing? Genuine discussion and debate of the issues.

CPAC, which is being held in Orlando this year, has become sort of a rally for die-hard conservative activists over the past decade. Thousands of people travel to the event from across the country to see their political idols in the flesh. Media flock to the circus, too, as it provides a one-stop shop to understand an important faction of the GOP. This in turn attracts potential presidential candidates, eager to treat it as a sort of off-Broadway run of their political shows to test what works with an activist audience.

This year’s agenda speaks volumes as to who is and is not considered potential star material for movement conservatives. Former president Donald Trump makes the grade, as does his son, Donald Trump Jr. But former vice president Mike Pence does not. Neither does Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Kristi L. Noem of South Dakota have coveted solo slots, as do Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) and even former secretary of state Mike Pompeo. Other potential 2024 candidates, such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, are missing despite their consistently conservative stances on the issues.

The Trumpian imprint extends to speakers in contested Republican primaries, too. Trump-endorsed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake is on the agenda, but neither of her top opponents will appear. David Perdue, the former Georgia senator running for governor in his state with Trump’s blessing, is on a panel, while his primary foe, incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, is not. And Rep. Ted Budd, whom Trump endorsed for North Carolina’s Senate seat, is in, while his primary opponent, former governor Pat McCrory, is out.

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It is thus notable that disgraced former governor Eric Greitens will be the only candidate in Missouri’s Republican Senate primary to appear at the event, since he has yet to receive Trump’s endorsement. Perhaps Trump decreed this is an audition to see if Greiten deserves the coveted nod from Mar-a-Lago.

This Trump-infused movement conservatism is decidedly angry, if the titles of CPAC’s panels are any indication. One is called “Put Him to Bed, Lock Her Up and Send Her to the Border.” Another promises to “Lock Her Up, FOR REAL.” “The Moron In Chief” is presumably about the current occupant of the Oval Office, and Sebastian Gorka and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) will encourage the next occupant to “Fire Fauci.” Panels such as “The Invasion” and “Obamacare Still Kills” will keep the blood running hot, while “War: A Tribute to Andrew Breitbart” is presumably not about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Sober discussion, it appears, will be in short supply at this weekend’s confab.

That is a dramatic departure from CPAC’s roots. Conservatives historically used CPAC to discuss and debate serious topics. The 2012 agenda, for example, featured serious debates on Internet taxation, the meaning of the Arab Spring and whether a flat tax or a VAT is the best supply-side tax policy. That meant many panels featured scholars and professors rather than media personalities or politicians. There was plenty of red meat on offer, but attendees were also given the chance to consume a more balanced and thoughtful political diet.

The old CPAC was also open to the wide variety of conservative viewpoints. In 2012, both the GOP leaders in the Senate and House, Mitch McConnell and then-House Speaker John A. Boehner, gave speeches. All of the leading presidential candidates that year also had solo speaking slots, as did many who had dropped out by the time CPAC was held. Libertarians and Christian conservatives both had sponsored panels and star speakers.

In other words, the conservative movement was more ideologically diverse and open to Republican leaders who might be considered “establishment” friendly in the past than it is today. As a result, this year’s event will be even less representative of the broader Republican Party than in previous years.

This is a long-running problem. CPAC has always attracted the party’s right wing. The event’s annual presidential straw poll has historically picked hardline conservatives who went on to lose the GOP nomination to more moderate figures. In that sense, CPAC has always been a gathering of the minority faction of the minority party. Its move toward the angry fringes of the right means that the GOP’s silent majority will be even more unrepresented this year than previously.

CPAC is thus narrowing its appeal at the same time as Republicans are gaining converts with less strident faces, such as Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who will not appear at the event. Those interested in the true state of the GOP and conservatism should keep that in mind as CPAC’s curtain raises this week.

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