In an interview with The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty, former senator Alan Simpson(R-Wyo.) gives his thoughts on the state of conservatism ahead of CPAC this week. (The Washington Post)

From its founding four decades ago, the Conservative Political Action Conference, set to begin Thursday in Washington, has come to function as an annual gut check for the political right.

At the CPAC gathering in post-Watergate 1975, then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan famously exhorted the demoralized group to raise “a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all of the issues troubling the people.”

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.

The conservative conference celebrates its 40th birthday amid questions of its continued importance and the future of conservatism. The Fix’s Chris Cillizza stops by to discuss. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

“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?”

Also, “Should We Shoot All the Consultants Now?” And “Budgets and Readiness: Can We Cut Defense Spending & Still Protect America?” And “Accuracy & Innocence in the Criminal Justice System.”

“To me, we’re kind of at a reappraisal time, regirding the loins,” said Donald J. Devine, vice chairman of the American Conservative Union, who says he has attended each of the past 40 conferences.

“One of the things we’ve missed, until recently, is we’ve put too much in the glamour side. We’re putting more into substance,” Devine said. “It is a time to look deeper into our principles and find a new way of saying and doing things.”

Some conservatives insist that reconnecting with their philosophical foundation will require untethering the movement from the Republican establishment, which they believe began to take them adrift during the presidency of George W. Bush.

The size and reach of government grew then, as did spending. Many on the pre-neoconservative right viewed Bush as a foreign adventurist, too quick to commit the country to war. They felt betrayed in 2005 when he attempted to appoint to the Supreme Court his White House counsel, whom they considered insufficiently credentialed and unacceptably moderate. Her name was withdrawn amid a backlash from the right.

“The veneer of a political philosophy ended once and for all with the GOP. I would point to the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, and around the same time, President Bush began referring to the Democratic Party as the ‘Democrat Party,’ ” said Craig Shirley, a consultant who advises conservative groups and the author of two Reagan biographies, who began attending CPAC in the 1970s. “Both acts were insulting to intelligent people, and both devalued the GOP to a party more akin to a kids’ club than to an intellectual movement.”

The tea party movement has been one form of insurrection against old-order Republicanism. There are also new expressions of the antiestablishment impulses that once defined conservatism.

As senior Senate Republicans were dining with President Obama in downtown Washington last week, for example, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was standing on the Senate floor and leading a filibuster to criticize the administration’s use of unmanned aerial drones to wage war.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called Paul and his allies “wacko birds.”

“This thing between Rand Paul and John McCain could be the Panama Canal Treaty fight of 2013,” Shirley said, referring to the late-1970s battle over returning the canal to Panama, which became a galvanizing moment for the right. (“We bought it, we paid for it, we built it, and we intend to keep it,” Reagan said in 1976.)

Immigration is an issue that will be front and center at CPAC. Organizers, led by American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas , say they are determined to elevate the debate and rescue the right from the nativist voices that have dominated Republican politics on the question of who should be an American. They say it is a political imperative, given the nation’s growing Hispanic population, and a reflection of a truer conservative philosophy.

In 2007, then-Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) told CPAC that “Miami is becoming a third-world country.” Now, CPAC leaders point to two Floridians — Sen. Marco Rubio and former governor Jeb Bush — who are scheduled to speak as symbols of a new direction on immigration, toward more liberal laws.

“The Tom Tancredo impact on that issue was always a mile wide and an inch deep,” Norquist said. “Now it’s not a mile wide anymore. This is the party of Rubio and Bush, not Tom Tancredo. This only happens if conservatives lead on it.”

But the difficulty in doing that was underscored with the recent release of Jeb Bush’s new book on immigration, which is considered a predicate for a possible 2016 White House bid and which took a harsher line than his previous statements on the issue of offering citizenship to people who are in the country illegally.

Devine said his greatest hope for CPAC is that it will “refine not just the message but the ideas” of conservatism in the 21st century.

“This,” he added, “is exactly what we should be doing at CPAC.”

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