Last week I covered the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) as a credentialed blogger. I had access to some pretty big movers and shakers inside the vast right-wing conspiracy. But I forwent confabbing with them in favor of trolling the booths of exhibitors and conventioneers; the billion-footed right-wing beast, you might call it.
I’m happy to report the state of the conservative movement is strong, if a bit atomized.
You’ve got a conservative group today for every right-of-center grievance known to man. You’ve got advocates for “cultural renewal,” the “right to work,” “academic freedom,” “free speech,” “religious freedom” and “the right to bear arms.” You’ve got libertarians, Republicans, lawyers, journalists. Think tanks, publishers, tech geeks, and lots and lots of clothiers who iron clever saying onto T-shirts. Example? A picture of Dan Rather with the words “Unfit to Report” under his face. The O in “Report” of course, was the CBS eye.
In 1973, a small group of right-wingers assembled in Washington, DC to commiserate. They called it CPAC. Those pioneers might not recognize CPAC today. Thirty-two years later CPAC is an annual pilgrimage in which thousands of conservatives from all over the country, from high school kids and high public office holders, gather and kick around ideas. This year’s CPAC was quite a bit like a celebration, given the success of the 2004 elections, and all.
Conservatives now claim as their own the President of the United States, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Senate Majority Leader and a majority of the nation’s governors. Once upon a time conservative politicians needed to disguise their pro-life proclivities. Today Hillary Clinton, desperate to ascend to the presidency, seeks “common ground” with them. Where once free market-loving office holders came up with clever dodges around their advocacy for Social Security privatization, they are now admonished by Senator John Sununu to embrace it, run on it, and win.
Conservatism is the default governing philosophy in America today. Want more proof? So broad is the appeal of this new conservatism that some strange bedfellows attended this year’s CPAC. You might be surprised to know the tent has gotten so big The Walt Disney Company and the American Civil Liberties Union were in attendance.
“We’re trying to open up a dialogue with conservatives about property rights,” the guy at the Disney booth told me. “Conservatives support property rights and that should include intellectual property rights, as well.”
The ACLU was there talking about civil liberties. They had on display at least three op-eds by former Congressman Bob Barr. They were also peddling some glossy literature about how bad the Patriot Act is. As I was walking away from their booth, the young woman there called out to me. “And find out why we are a conservative organization!” She handed me a flyer with pro-ACLU quotes from Henry Hyde, David Keene, and Ward Connerly.
Conservatives used to ruminate on how best to expand the tent, how to make conservatism appealing to enough people to make electoral victory possible beyond Ronald Reagan. Turns out the solution was to go out there and win first, then start signing up new members.
But will all these strange bedfellows and particular agendas bastardize the movement? How big does a tent need to be, for example, to accommodate President George W. Bush’s guest worker program and the build-a-fence immigration reformers? Can amoral, anti-government libertarians cohabitate with conservative Christians who want to ban gay marriage and teach creationism in public schools?
What’s more, virtually every group in attendance had some legislative agenda or another. Isn’t conservatism supposed to be the philosophy that holds the government that governs least governs best? Time was, political cliche held that “liberals were for change, conservatives are for the status quo.” I kind of liked that. I don’t think the government has ever touched something and not cheapened or ruined it. Why do some conservatives think it’ll be different just because they’re in charge now?
If conservatives have any more success, the next CPAC might be so big it loses all meaning. Some of us are beginning to long for the days when conservatives were public pariahs. Maybe conservatism is a journey, not a destination.
Patrick Hynes is a Republican consultant and a freelance writer. He is the proprietor of the website AnkleBitingPundits.com.
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