The 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference brought thousands of eager conservatives to the Gaylord convention center just outside Washington, D.C., serving as a three-day microcosm of the national conservative movement.
While speakers like Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin grabbed most of the headlines, the bevy of political operatives, college conservatives, bloggers and unapologetic hucksters who showed up for this year’s event probably provided a more realistic illustration of the conservative movement’s present strengths and weaknesses.
First, Paul’s full-throated libertarian appeal was widely appreciated at CPAC. There was no need to wait until the results of The Washington Times’ straw poll to know that CPAC 2014 was Paul’s territory. But, in case you’re wondering, Paul received 31 percent support from the CPAC crowd.
That CPAC’s attendees are, on the whole, Paul supporters is not surprising, considering that more than half of the people at the conference this year qualify to be labeled as youth voters. That group is more likely than any other contingent of the American conservative movement to appreciate Paul’s libertarian side. But more traditional conservatives at the conference undoubtedly had many conversations about warming to candidates like Paul in the future, if only for the value broad youth appeal could bring to the GOP.
Another conservative who routinely finds himself in GOP fringe territory, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, took second place in the CPAC straw poll with 11 percent.
As has been the case just about every year since the recent rejuvenation of the American conservative movement, the story of CPAC is largely the story of the Republican establishment’s most unfortunate mistakes. In the cheap seats at the conference, support for harsh fiscal conservatism is ever-rising, as is a dedication to reducing the size of government — even when it means backing off on social issues. Meanwhile, anyone paying attention knows that the GOP establishment is running in the opposite direction, purveying a message that the party is heading in a kinder and gentler direction, in an effort to capture more moderate voters.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was invited to speak at the conference this year, but that doesn’t mean his problem with conservatives is gone. More than a few conversations among conference attendees meandered between wondering why Christie was there… and outright bashing.
As one young conference attendee put it: “It’s kind of hard not to see the writing on the wall when Christie is out in front of a conservative crowd trying to pretend like he belongs. Remember [Mitt] Romney? [John] McCain? They tried the same gimmick.”
The comment echoed part of Cruz’ earlier speech.
The Texas Senator said that the GOP’s adherence to the advice of political consultants in 2006, 2008 and 2012 was to blame for big losses for conservatism, because the candidates foisted by the party elites shared an inability to successfully distinguish themselves from Democratic candidates.
“They say if you stand for principle you lose elections. The way to do it — the smart way, the Washington way — is don’t stand against Obamacare; don’t stand against the debt ceiling; don’t stand against nothing,” he said of the consultant advice. “I want to tell you something; that is a false dichotomy.”
“ … [W]hen you don’t stand and draw a clear distinction, when you don’t stand for principle, Democrats celebrate,” he said.
While the GOP establishment will do whatever it wants, the ongoing divisions in the conservative realm that were on full display at CPAC are likely making behind-the-scenes Republican movers and shakers sweat. It’s never been clearer that the youth vote is a powerful political rejuvenator. And if the GOP continues to sell out personal liberty and fiscal responsibility conservatives, the rising tide of politically involved and highly motivated youth will go where they feel their ideas are being heard and acted upon.