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.