Usually a debate involves an exchange of opposing views.
But not at CPAC.
On Saturday, pundits Ann Coulter and Mickey Kaus debated immigration reform.
Except that it wasn’t a debate.
Yes, both Coulter and Kaus offered their opinions with conviction and energy. Yet their alignment was omnipresent.
Both oppose the prospect of amnesty, both oppose bipartisan immigration reform, and both believe that either option would lead America to a very dark place. Or, in Coulterspeak, a very brown place.
Still, the real issue with this discussion wasn’t Coulter’s opinions. Rather, it was how Coulter encapsulated CPAC more generally — illustrating how serious policy discussions remain an uncomfortable paradigm in conservative-conservative dialogue.
To be sure, today’s conservative movement is ideologically diverse. After all, CPAC brought together Rand Paul’s libertarians, Paul Ryan’s fiscal wonks, Ted Cruz’s rebels, Marco Rubio’s establishment internationalists and the Chris Christie crew (who mix elements of all). As I’ve noted before, this diversity is a good thing. It offers choices. Moreover, it offers at least some counter-balance to images this one.
The problem, however, is that this diversity of opinion hasn’t translated into a coalesced identity. Instead, as Robert Costa notes, conservatives are simply retrenching into ideological segregation. Supported by a GOP leadership that fears internecine warfare in the run up to the election, the conservative ideas exchange is being closed until an undisclosed future day.
But whether it’s opposition to immigration that’s portrayed as a debate, or the absence of debate altogether (i.e., foreign policy at CPAC), all conservatives suffer because of it. As Christopher Hitchens explains, true belief does not exist absent debate. Forcing introspection, the challenge of debate offers the prospect of beliefs that are finely tuned and broadly persuasive in quality. Without such challenge, conservative ideas are left to a quiet swamp in which a multitude of voices spill over one another in stagnation.
And in this swamp, we see what we’ve seen at CPAC.
That those who are willing to speak the loudest are those who are least challenged. That conservatives like Ted Cruz and Ann Coulter are left to dictate the narrative of opposition as an end in itself.
Again, don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with what Cruz and Coulter do — they’re simply following their beliefs with a crocodilian like aggression. Rather, my point is that conservatism needs more than the passionate instinct of a few. Coulter’s influence cannot be denied — she’s earned her place in the conservative movement. But that doesn’t mean Coulter’s arguments should just be accepted with implicit toleration. Because whatever an individual conservative feels about immigration reform, when as she did at CPAC, Coulter speaks of illegal immigrants as those who lurk in “barrels” and “Pico de gallo” trucks, and (in jest?) argues that “death squads“ should pursue those who approve of amnesty, two things happen. First, the media picks reports her words with gleeful rapture. Second, conservatism’s appeal takes a major hit with floating voters.
Perhaps Matt Lewis’s tweet summed it up best. “Could you blame Hispanics for hating conservatives after watching this?”
This isn’t just about the politics of ideas — it’s also about identity. At its best, American conservatism welcomes diversity of people and opinion. The GOP is the party of Lincoln, after all. So let’s be clear. When a black conservative blogger (and friend of mine) is regarded as a walking photo-op at CPAC, but clamored into silence for his original contributions, conservatism has an obvious problem.
The fact that conservatives disagree with one another is a reality — hard, but healthy.
And while it’s tempting to believe that conservatives can win power simply by retreating into a dream of assumed unity and divided passion, we can’t. Just as the Japanese Army found in the mangroves of Ramree Island, the ideological swamp is no home for conservative success. Instead, it’s a place where the deeper we go, the greater our disconnect from the American electorate becomes. In the end, it’s a place of desperation.
A place where only the conservative crocodiles retain power.