As soon as attendees at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) check into their hotel rooms, they will see evidence that the 2016 presidential campaign has already begun. Room keys at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center are emblazoned with the face of Dr. Ben Carson and the slogan, “Run Ben Run!” This promotion is provided by the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee, which has already raised nearly $3 million to encourage the famed heart surgeon to pursue the Republican Party presidential nomination.
By the time CPAC ends Saturday afternoon with a speech by 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, attendees will have heard from nearly every politician mentioned as a potential 2016 GOP presidential contender, beginning with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s speech Thursday morning. Cruz will be followed to the CPAC rostrum Thursday by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, who was Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and business mogul Donald Trump. Friday’s lineup includes Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks Saturday, in addition to the speeches by Carson and Palin. Among the names commonly discussed as Republican presidential candidates in 2016, only Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are missing from the CPAC schedule.
Marquee names attract most of the nation’s political press corps to CPAC, the largest annual gathering of the Right, but much of the conference action occurs away from the main stage of the Potomac Ballroom. Elsewhere in the sprawling National Harbor convention complex, conferees will attend breakout discussion panels, film screenings, book signings and other events featuring personalities like radio talk show host Mark Levin, comedian Evan Sayet, author Richard Miniter, Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly and Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist. Evenings will feature banquet dinners and a plethora of private parties and receptions. With thousands of activists and political operatives in attendance, some of the most crucial activity at CPAC is the informal face-to-face networking opportunities, much of which takes place over meals and cocktails.
The CPAC experienced by most of the attendees will be a thoroughly enjoyable three days of politics and fun, but this experience (what I’ve called “Mardi Gras for the Right”) will bear little resemblance to the event as reported by the liberal media. What the journalistic elite want to depict is a series of controversies and gaffes, fitting the general media stereotype of conservatives as cranky out-of-touch extremists. This year’s hunt for “CPAC controversy” headlines began last week when American Atheists were rejected from having a booth in the conference’s exhibit hall, providing fodder for journalists to provide commentary about “a conservative movement in flux… uncertain how to meet the challenges of a shrinking base,” to quote Nicole Hemmer of U.S. News. Obviously, CPAC’s organizers can’t accommodate everyone who wants to be included, which is why, for the second consecutive year, Breitbart.com will be hosting a sort of alternative counter-conference, “The Excluded,” at the nearby Westin National Harbor hotel.
Grassroots conservatives who worry that CPAC is becoming too “mainstream” may be comforted to know that some liberals share their concern. “Is CPAC Becoming Less Crazy?” was the headline on a Daily Beast column this week by Dean Obeidallah. According to Obeidallah, CPAC has a history of hosting “vile, anti-Muslim speakers who fanned the flames of hatred… despicable bigots… extremist hatemongers.” Being a liberal, Obeidallah sees no “bigots” on the Left, although the daily MSNBC lineup is crammed fully of crazies and extremists. (If you think Al Sharpton has never “fanned the flames of hatred,” just Google “Freddy’s Fashion Mart.”) But this is politics in the Obama Age, when anyone who doesn’t vote Democrat is automatically suspected of racism, and where any disagreement with the liberal agenda is re-defined as “hate.”
Despite the media distortions and no matter what liberals want to believe about conservatism’s “shrinking base,” CPAC is an annual reminder that the conservative movement is alive and well. Extremism? Yes, CPAC is extremely fun, and the liberals haven’t managed to outlaw fun — yet.