CPAC: March Madness on the Potomac

The annual conservative gathering is always bad, says Michael Tomasky, but this year’s choices of main speakers seem designed to alienate as many Americans as possible.

03.14.13 8:45 AM ET

So March Madness begins today. The basketball tournament? Bah. I mean CPAC. The conference just gets lamer and somehow more bizarre every year, this allegedly marquee gathering of the nation’s conservatives; and this year, with the longest speaking slots going to an irrelevant has-been and America’s most obnoxious man, the trajectory is downward on a scale so operatic and yet so pulverizingly tedious that I have difficulty comprehending it. Can these people really believe they are accomplishing something? On rereading that sentence, I partially take it back. They are accomplishing something, all right: showing America that they are mad as hatters and thereby helping to ensure the election of more Democrats.

I love, first of all, the irony of this year’s venue. Did I say irony? It occurs that there are more than one. The National Harbor in Prince George’s County is, in certain respects, an attractive enough place; any development sitting right on a river as broad as the Potomac is at that point (more than a mile) would have to be. But it’s an ersatz community built to resemble a real one, in certain ways not unlike the gusher of AstroTurf groups we’ve seen cashing those Koch brothers checks in recent years.

Then of course there is the fact that P.G. County has among the highest percentages of African-Americans of any county in the United States and is also home to one of the country’s largest black, middle-class populations. This reality has delivered the electoral impact you’d expect and then some. Of Maryland’s 24 voting jurisdictions—23 counties plus Baltimore City (Baltimore City and Baltimore County are two different entities)—P.G. County gave Obama his highest support level in the state, at 90 percent, higher even than Baltimore City.

Lastly, it amuses me to think of all these lovers of liberty strolling through the Gaylord Hotel, marveling at the wonders that our glorious free-enterprise system can work when released from the dead hand of the state. In fact, the hotel and the whole complex could never have been built without a complicated and hard-won agreement between the developer and the county government. You can read about the negotiations between developer Milton Peterson and P.G. executive Wayne Curry in this thorough 2008 Washington Post article. The long and short of it is that developers had had their eye on the parcel for a long time, but nothing happened until this deal was struck, which is to say that without public investment, it would still be a swamp, which in turn is to say that CPAC-ers will be partying for the next two days in a place that directly and emphatically proves the point that government must be involved in the development of such venues or they would never even exist.

As for the event itself, well, the has-been is Sarah Palin, and the obnoxious man is Donald Trump. What else do you need to know? My Beast colleague Michael Moynihan did a terrific job yesterday of describing the event’s consuming kookiness, but let’s take a moment to stop and ponder these two marquee invitations, as well as that of Ted Cruz, the new It boy. Palin leads the pack with a 16-minute slot. Trump is given 14 minutes, and Cruz will provide the conference with its crucial concluding remarks.

What do these three have in common? They aren’t the movement’s rising stars. They aren’t its most articulate policy thinkers. They’re the most adept red-meat throwers. Palin and Trump are experienced demagogues and liars. Cruz is new to the game, but what with his recent prove-you-stopped-beating-your-wife attacks on Chuck Hagel and on the allegedly communist-infiltrated Harvard Law School, he’s risen up the ranks quickly.

Stop and think. Suppose you were organizing this conference. Your party just got pretty well thumped in a presidential election that a year ago you thought you had a strong chance of winning. In defeat’s wake there is inevitable talk of rebranding, specifically of the need to soften the image a bit. So what do you do? You throw out the gays, you deny an invitation to the one Republican on the current scene (Chris Christie) who has an ounce of potential crossover appeal, a fact that is obvious to anyone who isn’t an uncontrolled ideologue, and in their stead, this is what you choose to highlight? Two raging (and aging) blowhards, and the man bidding to be America’s next Joseph McCarthy? But why am I surprised? If by chance the person who introduces Cruz says, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you America’s next Joe McCarthy,” the applause will be tumultuous.

By the lights of this conference, conservatism today isn’t a political movement. It’s a therapy association, sort of like EST in the ’70s, except where EST was supposed to mellow you out, this “conservatism” serves primarily as a negative reinforcer; a home for wandering souls, a convening place for those who feel the same social rage to get together over drinks (being served to them and cleared from their tables by “moocher class” Obama voters) and shout at escalating volumes: “And another thing!” It is pathetic and tragic that this therapy group has political power, and a lot of it. But if they keep putting on shows like this, they’ll ensure that they have less of it.