Upon arriving Thursday at CPAC, the first thing said to me, squealed by a cheerful young conservative activist, was an admonition to “go upstairs because Dick Morris is about to speak!” The following day, I could listen to the musings of Donald Trump (I skipped this, as did almost every other attendee). And Saturday, to end on a rousing and inspirational note, a speech by Sarah Palin. While Trump has The Apprentice on NBC, Morris and Palin have recently been fired from Fox News.
As I wrote on Friday, the ossified ideas offered by the former Fox heads were loudly challenged by Sen. Rand Paul’s insurgent movement of socially tolerant Republicans. While the old guard complained about being unfairly treated by the press corps, Paul excited the crowd with a heavy dose of libertarian ideas slickly packaged for a conservative audience. CPAC organizers kept out New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the gay activist group GOProud; perhaps they should have been paying more attention to Paul and the party’s libertarian wing.
On Saturday, Palin was dismissing as a liberal media slander the idea that conservatives were locked in an internecine ideological battle. The conference was full of reporters, she complained, “here to write their annual ‘conservatives in crisis’ story.” She doesn’t believe that the Republican Party is rudderless and beset by infighting—in a state of crisis—but there she was, the not-even-one-term governor turned reality television star, excoriating Republican consultant Karl Rove from the stage, along with the rest of those faux conservative quislings and quitters. From the big-name speeches to the small-panel discussions, there was virtually no mention of the Bush presidency (though conservative fossil Phyllis Schlafly managed an attack on George W. and George H.W. Bush from the dais). But there is most certainly not a crisis within the conservative movement.
“Fresh ideas,” one young Republican told me, “we need fresh ideas.” Yes, well. The conference would effectively close with the rather stale Palin, whose folksy incoherence always manages to fill the seats, and a Breitbart.com-sponsored panel at which those who have been “uninvited” by CPAC (meaning not that they were barred, but that they weren’t invited to speak this year) could complain about the horrible mistreatment they’d endured at the hands of the conference organizers. Among that group was semi-pro conspiracy theorist and blogger Pamela Geller, who’d earlier charged that the annual conservative gathering had been “corrupted” and “compromised by Muslim Brotherhood activists.”
Palin’s speech was standard fare in comparison. There was the star of “Sarah Palin's Alaska” mocking the “reality television” world of Washington D.C. Reading off of a teleprompter, she asked the president to “step away” from his teleprompter and “do your job.” And then she hoisted a 7-Eleven “Big Gulp”—evidently unaware that the drink would have been the one exception to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stupid regulation of big, sugary drinks (thankfully halted at the last minute by a local judge).
Palin’s speeches are routinely described by her foes in the “lamestream media” (possibly the most irritating political neologism of the past decade) as “entertaining” and “crowd-pleasing”—descriptors that conservatives deploy too, and which the reader should always translate as “hopelessly devoid of ideas.” The “aw-shucks” tone, surplus of words ending with an apostrophe (the “amen, sista’’’ she offered to Margaret Thatcher, for instance), heavy reliance on one-liners that would make Shecky Greene cringe, and endless references to gun racks, dog sleds, and moose were all intended as a reminder just in case you forgot that she was from, to use her own tired phrase, “real America.”
It’s transparent shtick, but for reasons this fake American fails to understand, the audience loves it.
And that’s always the takeaway from CPAC: it’s an event for activists (not intellectuals) who manage the rote recitation of key words and fulsome references to conservative heroes. Sure, there were some interesting “breakout sessions” that transcended the rah-rah stump speech, but the stimulating ones I attended were sparsely attended.
This isn’t a conservative problem so much as it’s a problem with American politics. After Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster, even those pundits who disagreed with the Kentucky senator expressed relief that real ideas were being substantively debated on the Senate floor. It’s a perennial suggestion that Washington needs something approximating Prime Minister’s Questions, in which Britain’s parliamentarians pepper their leader with questions and insults. Palin might be a hypocrite on this point, but American politics does indeed all too often resemble a reality show. (In comparison, the United Kingdom’s defense secretary, William Hague, wrote a critically acclaimed biography of Pitt the Younger, while Tory star and London mayor Boris Johnson is a newspaper columnist, former editor of The Spectator, and author of a novel and a work of history).
Like many CPAC attendees, Palin believes that the party doesn’t need new ideas, because those ideas—immigration reform and gay marriage, for instance—would supposedly betray conservative principles. Keep losing elections, but lose with dignity.
But it’s also that Palin isn’t in the ideas business. She is, as loudly reaffirmed in her CPAC speech, a peddler of resentment, with a worldview of conservative victimology obsessively focused on the media gatekeepers and corrupt political consultants they see distorting a political message that, if not interfered with by liberal ideologues, would be embraced by most all Americans. It’s a common theme at CPAC: it’s not our ideas, it’s how the media distorts our ideas. Circling the conference center was a truck sponsored by the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group, displaying the message that the “liberal media” was “censoring the news.”
Perhaps Palin is correct that events like CPAC get a tough time from the media, but spending some time in the company of right-leaning journalists one realizes that CPAC skepticism is a bipartisan thing. Indeed, there were few conservative journalists or intellectuals—excepting the ideological insurgents of the Breitbart crew and assorted right-wing blogs—I spoke to that held the conference (or, in some cases, its attendees) in high esteem. As one conservative journalist told me, the conference had successfully transformed from “a conservative freak show into a general freak show.”
After three days at CPAC, one could have almost forgotten that the previous decade of Republican politics ever happened, when the party prepared for a permanent majority and a long war against Islamist extremism, circled the wagons in defense of George W. Bush, and believed complaints about civil liberties were deployed as a cudgel to undermine the president. If CPAC is an indicator of the state of conservatism—and I’m not entirely convinced that it’s much more than a poorly executed media event—then expect this civil war to be long and bloody.