Inside the Conservative Political Action Conference

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Each year, conservatives converge on Washington, DC for the Conservative Political Action Conference. Started in 1973 by the American Conservative Union (ACU), the event has grown to be the largest right-of-center conference of the year. This past weekend, more than 11,000 people attended and set a new record.

Even though the event is closely affiliated with President Ronald Reagan, it's not without controversy. And controversy reigned from numerous corners this year.

In many ways, CPAC is a gut-check for the state of the conservative movement. Since there's no official gatekeeper or organization deciding who is allowed in the movement and who isn't, there's always some strange partnerships at work, and people who are upset at those partnerships.

Highlights from the Conference

The best parts of CPAC always happen behind the scenes and away from the cameras. When so many grassroots conservatives, prominent politicians, aspiring politicos, presidential front-runners and a handful of celebrities converge into one space, interesting things always happen.

A few gossip sites picked up the true story of my friend who refused to admit New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd into the FreedomWorks Blogger Lounge because she lacked the right credentials. Citizens United had a huge Ronald Reagan birthday cake made by the famous Cake Boss bakery. I had the opportunity to meet actor Richard Dreyfuss and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld within a 2-hour period. I also realized how tall and pretty Congresswoman Kristi Noem is in real life, and sadly missed both the Sarah Palin impersonator and the cameo appearance of The Rent is Too Damn High guy.

Amidst these fun memories and highlights, one can nearly sense the trouble that is brewing in the future of the movement. While liberals may rejoice to hear that, I do believe that conservatives will remain united overall on the issues of spending and government growth.

As long as President Obama continues to send budgets to Congress that increase spending and government programs and refuses to face the seriousness of our fiscal crisis, the movement will fight with a united front.

The GOProud Dilemma

Since conservatives took over the Republican party at the 1980 convention, the movement has existed on Ronald Reagan's three-legged stool ideal: social conservatism, fiscal conservatism and strong national defense.

Most of the time, we can work together, but what happens when social values are no longer so clear?

Last year, CPAC allowed GOProud, an organization of gay Republicans, to have a booth in the exhibit hall. CPAC went on as planned with only a few groups protesting. Nothing major happened, and the controversial group hardly made an impact.

Fast-forward to 2011, and more groups, including the Heritage Foundation, Concerned Women for America, Family Research Council, Media Research Center, Senator Jim DeMint and others publicly and loudly boycotted the event.

While I'm still baffled over what spurred the increase in boycotting organizations, I personally had no problem with them appearing at CPAC. As I heard a friend explain it to a liberal blogger this weekend, it's best to follow Reagan's 80/20 rule. If we agree 80% of the time, can't we work together?

As I stated earlier, CPAC serves as a gut-check for the conservative movement and the issue of gay marriage is going to be an ugly battle. It crosses numerous issues including generational outlooks and states' rights issues in addition to the morality issues.

As a Conservative Millennial, I personally believe that homosexual behavior and lifestyles are wrong due to my religious beliefs. However, since we don't live in a theocracy, we should still respect the civil rights of individuals who choose this lifestyle. Yet, as a states' rights advocate, I strongly believe that marriage should be under the purveyance of states, not the federal government or judicial system.

Do you see the dilemma facing conservatives like me? Until the president of GOProud started publicly trashing members of the ACU board, they had my respect. However, given the comments of the president, I think the organization lost much of the goodwill held by libertarians and undecided members like me.

At this point, who knows how this debate will end. All I know is that it will likely be a long and divisive battle. However, the media has been proclaiming wars among the three legs since Reagan won in 1980, and the movement has survived and flourished.

Infiltration of the Paulbots

How do you solve a problem like Ron Paul?

Like most conservatives, I've tolerated the fringe of libertarianish conservatives who idolize the Congressman from Texas. I have friends who work and volunteer for Young Americans for Liberty, the college branch of his organization. These young workers have amazing organization, enthusiasm and dedication to the movement.

They're also usually the crazies present at Tea Parties. People wearing End the Fed t-shirts? Ron Paul fans.

Until this year, they were a nuisance, but they were our nuisance. I begrudgingly accepted them and went on. Then they booed at the CPAC event honoring Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney.

I don't care how you feel about either of those two men. At an awards ceremony among a supposedly friendly crowd, you show respect simply out of deference for your fellow attendees. The booing was on the same level of disrespect as the college crowd at Obama's Tucson speech several weeks ago.

Then, the Paul acolytes, manipulated the CPAC straw poll for the second year in a row. (Read here for an explanation of how they did it last year.) Their numbers were bigger this year. YAL was responsible for at least 700 of Ron Paul's fans. Each of them voted at least once. Out of around 11,000 attendees, only 3,742 people cast a ballot. (Click here for full results.)

Going back to Reagan's 80/20 rule, I'm forced to ask if we even agree with Ron Paul types 80% of the time? If you look at their platform, we agree on fiscal conservatism and pro-life issues, but foreign policy, the war and even auditing the Federal reserve and returning to the gold standard aren't mainstream conservative views.

In many ways, I'm frustrated that we agree much more with GOProud's platform than Ron Paul's, yet no one is boycotting over the Paulbots.

What do you do when a small but vocal group take perverse pleasure in alienating anyone else who might be sympathetic to their views?

Personally, I hope that ACU takes a cue from Young Americans for Freedom and doesn't invite Dr. Paul in 2012. It might cause an uproar, but the overall conference would be much more representative of what the majority of conservatives believe in this country.

What is the takeaway?

After fielding questions from my parents and listening to Rush Limbaugh's monologue about the conference yesterday, I realized perception of the conference was completely different than what actually happened.

Here's what I saw: Social conservatism is still ascendant. Aside from the issue of gay marriage, its partnership is stronger with fiscal conservatism than possibly ever before. Conservatives remain generally united in solving our economic woes and decreasing the size of our government. We understand that traditional values will be upheld when we cut the government programs funding the liberal social engineering that we disagree with.

Then there's the issue of who will be the GOP nominee in 2012. I don't think the conference shed any light on that situation except to show case potential runs by Donald Trump, Haley Barbour and Herman Cain. At this stage, no one, and I mean no one, has any idea who will be the nominee.

All political movements are messy. That's what makes democracy great. When and if we solve the economic disaster of the Obama Presidency, conservatives have several debates waiting to unfold.

Note: all speeches can be viewed here. (Registration required.)

Photo Credit of Kristi Noem: Gage Skidmore (via WikiMedia).

Adrienne works in the conservative movement and blogs at Cosmopolitan Conservative.


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