Conservatives who hope to distance themselves from the whackadoodlier elements of CPAC often refer to the conference as a sideshow.
But this year, the sideshow has a sideshow: not a more extreme iteration, but an ideological double negative.
Down the hall from the main stage, there’s a three-day 9-to-5 “activist bootcamp” going on. Coordinator Matt Robbins considers it the first “comprehensive, timely, practical” attempt to turn CPAC’s unkempt exuberance into strategic, ground-game-winning competence.
If CPAC seems crazy to outsiders, it has something to do with the conference’s fundamentally incompatible aims: You can’t both serve as a training ground for future leaders and have speakers on the main stage regularly rattle off the reasons why civilization is doomed.
The conference’s young attendees, largely libertarian-leaning and not worldly enough to think that compromise is necessary, are presented with a slate of panels that give the misleading appearance of a movement crackling with spirited intellectual frisson.
At the same time, would-be presidential candidates deliver the same calculated one-liners designed to elicit hoots of agreement but are largely devoid of substance. No wonder it’s failed to produce an actual youth movement.
In the cocoon of CPAC, the next generation of leaders hears no good argument to change anything about the last generation’s approach.
They are New Coke (if you’ll pardon the pun) distributors at a New Coke conference where the liveliest debate has to do with why more people don’t like New Coke, and the loudest cheers are for the insults heaped upon those who refuse to drink it.
Robbins is here to tell them that some people do not like New Coke.
He is president of American Majority, a nonprofit [501c4] founded in 2010 to focus exclusively on state-level races and below. They say they have 2,700 trainees go on to run for office and 300 in office today—almost all of them at the county or even school board level.
CPAC has featured career fairs and activist workshops in the past, but, says Robbins, “those were mainly about how to get jobs in the movement. I don’t care about that. I want to get people elected.”
The solutions are, admittedly, mostly cosmetic and familiar to anyone that’s been around organizing of any kind—database building, coalition management, social media-tending.
But Robbins also wants to deliver a sharp message to a soft audience completely unprepared for criticism.
“This conference hasn’t been about actually winning for years.”
He gives only one workshop personally, “7 Grassroots Cheats Never Heard Of,” and it is less Alinsky than Oprah. He stresses making voters feel good about their choices. It is aggressively non-party-specific. Do listen to people you don’t agree with! Don’t manage your own social media!
His advice for a candidate posed the “gotcha” question as to whether Obama loves America is to take the political rhetoric out of the issue.
“Every president loves his country,” he says. “Every executive loves their country,” should be the response. “You may disagree, but that has to be the message.”
Toward the end, one audience member seems put off by the lack of red meat and asks, pointedly, why do conservative candidates need to do all this image-management stuff.
“If we can get the message out past the mainstream media,” he says, “the ideas can sell themselves.”
Robbins looks tired and amused.
“Can I be honest with you?” he says, not waiting for an answer: “No one cares. No one cares about our economic policy. No one cares about small-government federalism. No one cares about white papers.”
He returns to teaching mode and asks the audience, “You’re a candidate and you knock on someone’s door, what’s the first thing they want to know?”
“Who are you?” shouts someone. Robbins shakes his head.
After a few more guesses, Robbins interrupts.
“No, not ‘Who are you and what can you do for me,’ but, ‘Are you authentic, and do you care about me?’”
Voters want to know that the candidate is looking out for them, he explains. They will let the details slide.
This is clearly a sore spot. For another 10 minutes, Robbins harps on the GOP’s empathy gap almost exclusively.
It’s his theory for what’s behind the GOP’s slow-motion demographic implosion: Not enough candidates that seem genuinely interested in the problems of voters, whereas Obama definitely projects concern and Bill Clinton “was like a puppy dog in his enthusiasm for people.”
This seems, at first read, like an elegant way to get around the real problem: not the lack of empathic Republican politicians, but the lack of empathy that’s built into Republican policies.
This thought occurs to me after Robbins’ workshop, and I admit I am delighted, because it means I will get to ask someone my very own “gotcha” question.
When I follow up with him later, I deliver as rehearsed: “Do you think the fact that you have trouble recruiting empathetic candidates might have to do with how conservative policies themselves don’t appeal to people that have a lot of empathy?” Pencil poised, I await stammering. I am not rewarded. Or, rather, I am, but not by telltale hemming and hawing, but a simple, “You have point.”
“If you’re a small government-minded conservative, and you enact those policies, someone is going to lose. Something is going to get cut,” he admits, and people attracted to that philosophy have to be OK with that.
He suggests that perhaps such surety is the luxury of those who have never met those on the receiving end. Robbin worked in the Virginia statehouse and recalls being floored by the constant roll call of emergency requests: “There were tens of thousands of Virginians without running water... people going hungry...with mental health problems out on the street...These are people with real needs and there’s no homeschool association to take care of them, no church that can take care of them, no neighborhood group—it’s a situation where government does seem like the answer.”
“I am not sure most conservatives believe that world exists,” he says. “Or, they do, but since they think those problems exist because of Democrats’ policies, those problems SHOULDN’T exist, and then their brains lock up and start to smoke when you ask for a solution.”
So, how do you fix that? I ask.
“If I had my way, every candidate would go on a ride-along with police on the coldest night of the year, when they pick people up because they literally won’t survive otherwise.”
And, he said, there needs to be more conservative candidates and fewer movement activists, period—more people faced with the task of looking in the eyes of those on the other end of an philosophically unpalatable policy “and trying to thread that needle.”
“You know it only costs, on average, $2,000 to $4,000 to run for school board? How many people here do you think could afford that? Stop watching Fox News and go run.”