The fortieth Conservative Political Action Conference begins Thursday amidst growing questions about its relevance. One ominous sign has been the fracas over invites or lack thereof, both this year and last, to particular groups and individuals to participate in the convention. This controversy has been front and center in large part due to the declining stock of the Republican brand among the U.S. electorate.
Under the leadership of Texas lobbyist Al Cardenas, the conference has grown. However, attendance was already growing; David Keene, now of the National Rifle Association presided over a continuous growth in conferees despite allegations of mismanagement prior to Cardenas’ takeover. This steady growth in attendance has resulted in the second change of venue for the gathering in five years, abandoning the convenience of Northwest Washington, D.C. for the National Harbor development south of the capital in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Yet, despite its growth, the once consequential gathering of conservative activists from across the United States appears by some accounts to be stuck in the past.
Sarah Palin, the failed 2008 vice presidential candidate and Mitt Romney, the failed 2012 presidential nominee are both slated to address the annual conservative gathering. Nonetheless, three prominent Republican governors, all elected in no small part due to grassroots conservative activism during the first two years of the Obama administration, have not been asked to participate this year. The Washington Post reports that Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell was not invited to speak at CPAC along with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Much has been made in the press about the exclusions of both men. Grossly underreported has been the absence of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s name from lists of slated attendees.
The exclusion of McDonnell on its face does not seem irrational, given that he is in the last year of his single term and is ineligible for reelection. However, on closer examination, the list of former officeholders set to participate suggests that another reason exists for the absence. McDonnell has taken fire from Republicans recently for supporting tax increases as part of a transportation improvement package supported by Virginia Democrats. Christie too is said to have not been invited due to his defiance of party orthodoxy. Unlike McDonnell, Christie has turned down a past invite to address CPAC, however, and his non-invite this year should not be the controversy that it is given that he faces a relatively liberal electorate in New Jersey this November. This is where the exclusion of Governor Rick Scott is informative.
However, like McDonnell, he has addressed the gathering before, and like both governors, he has reached out to Democrats. So, while McDonnell has another speaking commitment the same weekend as CPAC, and Christie naturally wants to avoid appearing too conservative, the failure to invite Scott is the strongest evidence that these lack of invites are ideological in nature. Sitting governors who will be speaking at the conference include Rick Perry and Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, of neighboring conservative states, Texas and Louisiana respectively.
Exacerbating matters is the exclusion of the conservative LGBT Republican group, GOProud, the relatively recent, rightward counterpart to the better-known Log Cabin Republicans, an organization with similar goals and orientation. This is significant, because GOProud, along with the ACLU, were among the groups participating in CPAC 2011 under David Keene’s tutelage. Conservative commentator, MSNBC personality, and past speaker S.E. Cupp is among those boycotting CPAC 2013 over the exclusion for the second year in a row of GOProud. Ideological considerations have undoubtedly contributed to the exclusion of groups who cater to gay and lesbian conservatives due to their support for same-sex marriage rights.
While CPAC shouldn’t be confused with the Republican Party, the annual gathering is a good gauge of the mood of the conservative movement. In defense of the conference and its organizers, limited strides are being made toward greater inclusion; several notable speakers this year are African-American, and two governors slated to speak, Jindal of Louisiana and Haley of South Carolina. Furthermore, there will be a discussion panel on immigration policy and reform. Likewise another panel will discuss greater engagement by younger people with conservatism. Despite the relative youth of many conference attendees, far too many speakers have not been relevant in twenty or more years; of this there is perhaps no better example than Phyllis Schlafly. A conference which hopes to bring new energy into American conservatism finds itself stuck firmly in the past.
The Republican Party and its activists are at a crossroads; there is no place wherein the friction between factions of the Republican Party post-George W. Bush have clashed and collaborated so openly. Yet, the old guard of the movement has been overly cautious in its willingness to embrace internal differences. Change is achievable; among speakers this year are senators Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham, both Republicans representing conservative states, yet men clearly with different visions of conservatism. The controversy over the inclusion and exclusion of particular groups may well manifest itself this year, as it has in the past, and this process may prove to be a net plus in the near to medium term. However, the relevance of CPAC hangs in the balance.
Looking towards 2016, Democrats seem to be betting on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as their standard bearer to succeed Barack Obama. While Clinton would hypothetically bring a lot to the table, her political baggage must not be overlooked. Her legacy as Secretary of State is mixed and her age and recent health scare would give some voters pause. Furthermore, Republicans have been anticipating the chance to run against Mrs. Clinton in a national election since her stint in the U.S. Senate.
Excluding prominent, relevant Republicans from participation at CPAC might be inconsequential in 2013, but this will not be so in the next three years. Elections cannot be taken for granted; the 2008 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign learned this the hard way, and she will not make the same mistake again should she opt for a run for the presidency again. This means that Republicans need a formidable opponent for that election, and CPAC has offered the opportunity in past years to find or groom such a candidate. This year though, that will not be the case.
The CPAC Keynote address is given towards the end of the conference, and provides the opportunity for a takeaway message. If the bombastic junior senator from Texas Ted Cruz is the person best suited to speak for CPAC, then there should be doubts about whether or not it can endure.