The guest list at this year’s CPAC conference, which runs Thursday through Saturday outside of Washington, tells the soul-searching story of the conservative movement in America today.
On the list is Jenny Beth Martin, head of the Tea Party Patriots. Off the list is House Speaker John Boehner, the highest-ranking Republican in Washington who has run afoul of the far right flank of the GOP again and again over the last year.
On the list is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the embattled 2016 hopeful who has suddenly gained favor with the right after two months of abuse from the mainstream media over his bridge scandal. Off the list are Mitt Romney and John McCain, Christie’s fellow “pragmatists,” “moderates” or “RINOs,” and former White House aspirants who no longer need to try to convince activists they’re all on the same team.
The headliners at this year’s CPAC will look familiar to anyone who went to last year’s CPAC, or even the CPAC before that. Sen. Ted Cruz will kick things off Thursday morning, Sarah Palin will wrap it up Saturday night, and the three days in between will feature a déjà vu-inducing list of the greatest conservative hits of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, including Newt Gingrich, Phyllis Schlafly and Ralph Reed.
Most of the 2012 presidential field will be there, as will Donald Trump, former Sen. Jim DeMint and Ann Coulter.
But among the old guard will be some of conservatism's newest faces and freshest hopes for the party—Cruz’s fellow senators Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee, as well as more than 10,000 right-of-center activists, half of whom under the age of 30, and all of whom are hungry for a Republican Senate in 2014 and GOP president two years after that.
The annual confab is part family reunion, part pep rally, and part group therapy session for a movement that has recently turned some of its heaviest fire against its own members for being insufficiently conservative, or even just the wrong strain of the breed.
“What’s challenging is that we have a situation where Democrats are criticizing Republicans and Republicans are criticizing Republicans, so the message out of the Republican Party is negative right now,” said Martha Zoller, a talk radio host based in Georgia who guesses she has been to 15 CPAC conferences over the years and will be at the conference Thursday. “What I’m looking for are new faces, young people, the ability to be able to see what’s on their minds, because there is a shift going on in what it means to be a conservative right now.”
Zoller said she’ll also be looking to see which rising star galvanizes the energy of the young activists, and whether a consensus emerges on fiscal issues, foreign policy issues, and social issues. “People are more pro-life than they’ve ever been, but there are a lot of division about same-sex marriage and where we are as a party on that,” she said.
Lisa DePasquale, the former director of CPAC and new author of Finding Mr. Righteous, also sees marriage equality as an issue in flux among conservatives, but said the different ideological camps that show up at CPAC need to consider making concessions to each other before they can even think about beating Democrats in the future.
“It’s frustrating because every faction acknowledges that the 2014 elections are winnable, it’s just that people disagree on how they can do that and they’re worried another faction will ruin it for us,” she said.
Marriage equality may be on people’s minds as an issue at CPAC, won’t be a topic discussed at any of the breakout sessions during the three-day conference. On the agenda instead is immigration reform, framed with the question, “Can There be
Meaningful Immigration Reform Without Citizenship?” Climate change will be the topic at the panel, "What's the deal with global warming? An Al Gore fever dream? Real but with caveats? Real but irrelevant?” A panel about IRS intrusion into private lives features 2010 Senate hopeful Christine O’Donnell, while another roundtable on judicial overreach will include Bernard Kerik, the former New York City Poliice Commissioner who recently spent three years in federal prison.
Among the dozens of un-ironically named group talks is one 45-minute session that asks the one question that nearly all of the activists at CPAC are asking themselves, “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Ever Get Along?”
The internal battles are enough to get any right-of-center office holder down, but the attendance of college students like 19-year old Berent Batur, who will travel to CPAC for the second time this week, should be enough to give them hope for the future.
“I’ve always been a conservative believer. President Reagan is one of my biggest inspirations.” Batur said Tuesday before heading to Washington. “Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, and Chris Christie, I think they would all make great presidential candidates and hold great promise for the future of America.”
At last year’s CPAC, Batur scored an internship with Rick Santorum and is already signed up for another internship through the Koch brothers’ institute this summer. He said he’s excited to see what the Republican Party offers young people, but wants the party to embrace immigration reform to grow the party.
“Republicans can’t just be the party of the South, they need to expand their ideology,” he said.
He wants to go to law school someday and then live in Texas or Florida before running for office as a Republican. The only catch for Batur is his immigration status- he’s Canadian. But he’s a committed conservative, clearly enamored by America. “I’d consider it my first home after I get my citizenship,” he said.
The other speaker who Batur thinks could catch fire with the kids at CPAC is Ted Cruz. “I could see Ted Cruz being very popular,” he said. Also, “He’s from Alberta.”
Cruz is scheduled to speak at 9:15 AM on Thursday.