2013 CPAC Isn’t All Tea Party and Sarah Palin

Can an injection of intellectualism save conservatives from themselves?

For the next three days, conservative pundits, patrons and politicians will be gathered outside Washington D.C. for their first major powwow since Mitt Romney lost his bid for the presidency and Karl Rove declared open season on wingnuts.

The Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, has been hosted annually by the American Conservative Union for the past four decades, but it is in these years of reflection following big losses that the gathering takes on special significance.

Back in 2009—with America’s first black President firmly entrenched in the Oval Office—the organizers sensed an opportunity to stoke the fires and called on Rush Limbaugh to man the poker. The shock jock’s reactionary appeal to the “Walmart voter” in his CPAC keynote address resonated across the nation’s (mostly white) heartland, giving rise to the Tea Party and helping swing the House to the GOP in 2010. But the momentum proved shallow and transitory.

So it may seem odd that, four years later—with the Tea Party starting to resemble an unwelcome guest at an establishment dinner party—the ACU has tapped Ted Cruz, the Tea Party poster boy from Texas, to deliver the final remarks on Saturday.

Don’t be too shocked. The New American Right is painfully slow to adapt; and CPAC, once famous for testing the boundaries of partisanship and ideology, has become little more than a GOP pep rally for up-and-coming party cadres and their washed-up predecessors. This explains why CPAC’s organizers prefer to stake the movement’s future on predictable, if uninspiring figures as long as they toe the party line. And Cruz, for all his spit and vinegar, has an impeccable establishment CV.

William F. Buckley famously described conservatism as “standing athwart history and yelling stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so.” The organizers of CPAC 2013 could very well make that their motto. Romney will be speaking again this year, as will Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Donald Trump (whose invitation to the conference birthed Twitter’s #CPACisDead.) Meanwhile, more forward-thinking GOPers, such Chris Christie and Jon Huntsman, as well as members of the the gay Republican group GOProud, have been sidelined. Even Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s social conservative bona fides weren’t enough to secure him an invite in the wake of his decision to raise taxes to support much-needed infrastructure upgrades in his state.

The argument could be made that everything you need to know about CPAC 2013 is right there, or else buried (not very deeply) in a conference program that could  have been recycled for the past four years.

But this year’s CPAC occurs at a pivotal moment for a movement struggling to find balance between its increasingly anachronistic principles and the shifting norms of 21st century America. So, sprinkled between the screenings of pro-life films, homages to Andrew Breitbart and panels on Obama administration “bullying” is a forum on immigration stacked with pro-reform voices and roundtables with titles like:

  • “A Rainbow on the Right: Growing the Coalition, Bringing Tolerance Out of the Closet.”
  • “Too Many American Wars? Should We Fight Anywhere and Can We Afford It?”
  • “Accuracy & Innocence in the Criminal Justice System.”

And scattered among those panels is a handful of sensible voices who recognize that reinvigorating the conservative movement requires a break from self-defeating GOP politics, and an injection of old-school intellectualism into a movement too-long represented by mouth breathers.

Who are these people? Some of them are writing for The American Conservative, like editor-in-chief Daniel McCarthy, who recently opined that while the term conservative “once signified an intellectual tendency with partisan overtones, now it signifies a partisan tendency that would prefer not to have intellectual overtones.”

McCarthy, and some of his TAC colleagues will be at CPAC, participating in a series of panels hosted by the classically conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute. But they apparently have little illusion about where they stand at a gathering dominated by small minds and large pocketbooks, where the participants are more interested in mutual back-slapping than intelligent discourse. According to McCarthy:

“CPAC is a place where Republicans are ready for their comeback, where the war on terror is being won (or will be once that comeback takes place), and where Donald Rumsfeld is a defender of the Constitution. Why begrudge a man his fantasy?”

While they don’t always represent my position on issues, I look with hope to voices like McCarthy’s—and Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin and George Nash—to help inaugurate a new era of conservatism that can earn the respect of those of us who many not agree with all of their politics.

In the meantime, the American Conservative Union would do well to remember something else Buckley wrote, in an essay expressing his change of heart on the issue of legalizing marijuana:

“Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great.” (emphasis mine)

In a movement whose loudest voices are committed to preserving benefits for the wealthy and fighting tooth and nail against the natural tide of American social progress, a little intelligence could go a long way.