The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) just wrapped up in Washington, D.C., the city conservatives love to hate. A fine time was had by some.
These gatherings started way back in 1973, founded by the American Conservative Union, the oldest conservative membership organization in the country, and Young Americans for Freedom, a group of mostly college students. A stodgy old mainline group and another of fire breathing students made for strange political bedfellows but they shared a philosophical bent and a desire to strengthen and increase their numbers.
CPAC operated mostly in the dark for years. It wasnt that they werent trying. They just couldnt gain much traction with the media or the public. Ronald Reagans presidency gave them political legitimacy and power, and the advent of the internet enabled them them to increase both their reach and influence via a growing and more vocal conservative movement.
Their annual conference is now one of the signal events for serious conservatives. Its well-publicized, well-attended and extraordinarily well-reported, especially since some of the leading lights of conservative talk radio have been featured speakers in the past.
Since political positioning is intensifying as the 2012 presidential slugfest draws near, attendance was considered almost mandatory for those Republicans dipping their toes in the campaign waters. Virtually all the players youd expect were there with one notable exception. Sarah Palin was conspicuous by her absence, off doing her television show or at a book signing or some kind of speech making or something. Gov. Palin no longer attends events at which there might be someone friendly to one of her potential opponents or at which she might be confronted with a difficult question.
Everyone else was there, though.
The speeches were disappointingly predictable. Romney, Paul, Pawlenty, McConnell, et al, offered up rambunctious boilerplate presentations government is too big, taxes are too high, healthcare reform is socialism. The usual stuff. Ann Coulter, the Broom Hilda of the right, was her usual ray of sunshine, dripping venom while lecturing the attendees on the various evils of believing anything she doesnt. Even His Royal Hairness, Donald Trump, was there with yet another of his pretend dabbles in politics.
The one thing on which they all seemed to agree is that Barack Obama is a very bad person and an even worse president. We expect hyperbole and polemics at these kinds of events but the unfettered joy these speakers apparently feel while verbally eviscerating the president was at least marginally unsettling.
There was less unanimity on most everything else.
Some attendees thought Obama reacted too quickly when Egypt blew up. Others said he reacted too slowly. Still others said he shouldnt have done anything at all. Some speakers excoriated the president for being too soft in Afghanistan. Others said we should get out of there altogether. Too much waste at the Pentagon or not enough spending at the Pentagon. Fix healthcare reform or do away with healthcare reform. On and on they droned.
They were even all over the place on the budget. Some demanded $70 billion in budget cuts, some said it had to be at least $100 billion, others thought $200 billion sounded better. Nobody, however, suggested cuts of more than a $1 trillion and thats about what the deficit will be in the next budget year.
They certainly knew who and what they didnt like but they were a little weak on offering concrete alternatives to the policies they so despised.
Thats pretty much par for the course at these gatherings, whether the attendees are from the left or the right. Little more than exercises in political self-gratification, true-believers of some cause or philosophy join together and talk trash about people with whom they disagree. In the end, they all join hands in blissful unity.
It doesnt always work out that way. Even CPAC saw its share of factionalism.
The rift, in general, appears to be between those who want to maintain some sort of ideological purity and those who would actually like to win the presidency in 2012. The split was obvious in CPACs presidential straw poll, won by Texas Congressman Ron Paul. He is a darling of young conservatives but has no chance to win the Republican presidential nomination. Ironically, Paul was then immediately booted off the Board of Directors of the Young Americans for Freedom for not being tough enough on foreign policy.
Runner-up in the straw poll was Mitt Romney. Romney used to be considered a moderate and pushed through Massachusetts healthcare reform legislation which mandates that everyone must have insurance, the very requirement in Obamacare that has made conservatives apoplectic. But Romney is certainly more electable than Ron Paul so some CPAC attendees apparently gave him a pass on ideological purity.
By the time the conference ended, not everyone has happy.
There are breaks between traditionalists and neo-conservatives and the tea party folks. There are still big government Republicans and no government libertarian Republicans. The rips in the Republican fabric may be impossible to mend. There is no real leadership at the top of the conservative movement, no real affirmative platform or plans and no clear path to the White House despite control of Congress and state legislatures. There is disillusionment, dysfunction, disagreement and distress.
In the past, we had a name for people who belonged to a party with this much confusion. We called them... Democrats.