CPAC & The Trouble With True Believers

Terrance Heath

Covering CPAC was like stepping through the looking glass.

It was like a lot of political conferences I’ve seen, just with the context flipped. Usually, these conferences are mix of pragmatists and true believers. Ideally, that blend yields a message with broad appeal, but that’s firmly rooted in shared principles. That’s when everyone "gets it." CPAC’s reality was far short of that ideal. The conference was a mass exercise in not "getting it."

Two days at CPAC made the GOP’s big problem crystal clear. The conservative movement is split between two factions of "true believers," both wildly out of step with what most Americans want.

Not that this is news. My political memory goes back only as far as the Reagan era, and the GOP’s odd coalition of religious conservatives and libertarian fiscal conservatives goes back at least that far. As a progressive, I’d sometimes envied the legendary unity of that conservative coalition, and wondered what held it together. Whatever held those two factions together in the past is all but gone. The fissures are now obvious and growing.

The Trouble With True Believers

As Adele Stan wrote at Alternet, the unofficial unifying theme at CPAC seemed to be disunity on the right. My first hint came before I attended the conference, as I kept up with the controversy surrounding GOProud — a gay conservative organization whose attendance and sponsorship of the conference sparked boycotts by religious right organizations. As I made my way through the conference, a flyer thrust in to my hand by a young man from The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, urging CPAC "Don’t Betray Principles," by bringing GOProud and groups like it into the conference or the movement.

None of this means that social conservatives have lost their hold on the GOP and the conservative movement, as Jamelle Bouie notes at The American Prospect. In fact, despite GOProud’s presence (and apparently without objections on their part) day one of the CPAC 2011 agenda featured panels like "How Political Correctness is Harming America’s Military," and "Traditional Marriage and Society." In fact, Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays got a better spot in the exhibit hall than GOProud. (I had to go all the way to the back of the exhibit hall to find GOProud.)

But the presence of GOProud along with the prominence of father son duo Ron and Rand Paul signals the growing strength of a libertarian conservative wing of the party whose lack of social conservatism may appeal to younger conservatives like those who handed Ron Paul his second CPAC Straw Poll victory.

Simmering beneath the surface, however, was discontent with the growing influence of libertarians and antiwar conservatives at CPAC. Ron Paul won the confab’s straw poll in 2010, beating out Mitt Romney. The Campaign for Liberty, a Paul-aligned group, held well-attended events. "We believe in truth in advertising," complained Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association. "They should call themselves the Libertarian Political Action Committee."

Former (and perhaps future) presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said much the same thing after Paul’s straw poll victory: "CPAC has become increasingly libertarian and less Republican over the last years, one of the reasons I didn’t go this year." Both the American Conservative and FrumForum, writing from vastly different perspectives, argued that this was a bigger driver of CPAC boycotts than the social conservatives’ war on GOProud.

This year, the Campaign for Liberty had an even bigger profile, as more mainstream conservative groups like Americans for Tax Reform also contemplated defense budget cuts. And Paul was a repeat winner of the straw poll, defeating Romney 30% to 23% as other candidates lagged behind. Fellow libertarian Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor who endorsed Paul for president in 2008, tied with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at 6% apiece. Ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime conservative movement favorite, took just 5%.

Indeed, the hostility between the faction was palpable (as The Guardian’s James Antle wrote in the column quoted above) at times; particularly when Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were so loudly booed that it nearly stopped the show. (Cheney, true to form, snarled at the protesters to "sit down and shut up.")

All this would have been far more amusing if it weren’t for the reality that the GOP majority in the House now has the responsibility of governing. America’s economic crisis continues unabated, and the much ballyhooed "recovery" hasn’t reached most of America. Yet, at the first CPAC after the 2010 midterms, the only thing that received less attention than job creation was the revolution in Egypt.

That’s because CPAC and the conservative movement are trapped between two influential factions of true believers. The trouble is, true believers are by definition heavily invested in "not getting it."

Selling What Nobody Wants

By "not getting it," I mean that conservatives of both dominant factions either don’t know or don’t care that they’re selling what nobody wants. Polls like Gallup’s annual Values and Belief survey show that Americans are trending away from the social conservatives on issues like gay rights. The CAF/Media Matters report, "America: A Center-Left Nation," showed that conservatives were out of step with the majority of Americans on economic issues. Following the 2010 midterms, a CAF/Democracy Corps/Greenberg survey showed that anxiety about the economy drove the election, but that voters did not embrace the GOP or its policies.

Both, and the GOP leadership along with them still cling to the delusion that American voters gave them a mandate, when polling before and immediately after the election showed voters didn’t reward Republicans for not being Democrats — they punished Democrats for not delivering the change promised in 2008. The GOP’s agenda remained toxic to most Americans.

Americans offer tepid support for much of the Republican Party’s domestic agenda, including repealing the new healthcare law and extending tax cuts for the wealthy, according to the latest Society for Human Resource Management/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, conducted with the Pew Research Center.

The results suggest Republicans could struggle to pass legislation advancing many of the smaller-government themes that have dominated their campaigns in the midterm elections, even if the party wins control of one or both houses of Congress in November.

In particular, the party appears to risk a backlash from senior citizens, a critical voting bloc that harbors deep skepticism about tinkering with entitlement programs.

The survey is the most comprehensive polling look so far at the major elements of the agenda that key Republicans have been discussing in the weeks leading up to the election.

Not all the news was good for Democrats…

…Still, the poll offered little to suggest that the surge in voter support for Republican candidates, whom analysts project to win major gains this fall, carries over to support for policies championed this fall by Republican leaders in Washington and on the campaign trail.

Kos posted a handy breakdown when the poll came out.

  • 29% of Americans support extending all of the Bush tax cuts.
  • 32% support repealing the newly passed health care law.
  • 33% support replacing Medicare with vouchers.
  • 58% support creating Social Security private accounts.
  • 46% support amending the Constitution to deny citizenship to children of illegal immigrants (49 are opposed).
  • Fewer than half of Republican respondents favored extending all the Bush tax cuts or replacing Medicare benefits with vouchers.
  • Poll respondents continue to disapprove of President Obama’s signature healthcare legislation, 45% to 38%.
  • Three-quarters said they could not name the leader of the Republican Party, or that the party does not have a leader.

What do Americans want? Here’s a hint, it’s not what the Republicans campaigned on.

  • A September AP poll said that Americans who wish health care reform went further outnumber opponents of health care reform by 2-to-1.
  • An October poll by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard university found that six in ten Americans say they want their representatives to fight for more government spending in their districts, to spur job growth. That’s compared to 39% who said they want cuts even if it means fewer local jobs. (That’s a flip from 1994, by the way, when 53% wanted their Reps. to fight for cuts, while 42% were on the other side.)
  • In the same poll, 50% supported more government spending to boost the economy, while 46% prioritized deficit reduction.
  • Not only did voters defeat major anti-tax measures in several states, but an AP poll less than 50 days before the election showed that 54% of Americans favored raising taxes on the highest earners, compare to 44% opposed.
  • A Stanford University poll showed that 86% of Americans want government to limit the amount of air pollution that businesses emit.
  • And 76% favored government regulating greenhouse gasses in particular.
  • Another poll, conducted by Knowledge Networks and designed by Yale researches showed that 77% believe that global warming should be a priority for the president and Congress.
  • And 94% believe that developing sources of clean energy should be a priority for the president and Congress.
  • Meanwhile, 77% support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

And that’s an overview, because a detailed analysis is more than I have space to do here.

You’d never know any of the above from Mitch McConnell’s speech to CPAC attendees, in which he advised them, "If our ideas are unpopular, we will stand by what we believe in. Popularity will take care of itself."

I suppose it could be read as a stand on principle. But in the context of a speech in which McConnell essentially declared victory in the GOP’s obstructionist strategy in the previous Congress, it sounds like a promise of more of the same, and a willful misreading of a mandate.

In other words, it was another example of conservatives working hard at "not getting it"; not getting that Americans want government action on job creation and economic growth. That could mean two years of a conservative "anything-but-jobs" agenda of legislation on social issues to satisfy social conservatives, job-killing budget cuts to keep libertarian conservatives happy, and not much about most Americans’ top concerns: jobs and economic growth.

If so, that could mean trouble for the GOP in 2012. More to the point, it should mean trouble for the GOP in 2012, and Democrats should work hard to make sure that it does.

The Trouble With 2012

The split between libertarian conservatives and social conservatives on the right was also illustrated by the absence of a focus on jobs at CPAC. The lack plan for job creation from speakers at the conference illustrates the GOP’s problem with 2012. CPAC showcased not only conservatives lack of focus on the economy, but it showcased a weak slate of candidates for 2012.

Not only is there no front runner clearly capable of challenging the president, but there doesn’t appear to be a GOP hopeful who satisfies all the true believers.

 

Die-hard conservative activists are fired up about taking on President Barack Obama.

But when it comes to the GOP’s field of presidential candidates, they’re just not feeling it.

The lesson conservatives took from 2010 was that they don’t have to settle between electability and ideological purity. Now, their expectations for 2012 are higher than ever before. They’re not about to settle for anyone short of a full-spectrum conservative — and they don’t yet see anyone who fits the bill.“There’s been a shift of thinking among activists in America,” said Al Cardenas, the newly elected chairman of the American Conservative Union, who added that in past cycles, Republicans decided: “It’s OK to be a conservative, but at the end of the day, we want to win, regardless of where the candidate is in terms of the political compass.”

…Other conservatives — many of whom are gathered at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington — are more explicitly worried that, without a high-profile conservative to rally behind, 2012 could end up as a repeat of 2008.

…So far, though, every leading contender seems to have a potentially fatal flaw.

Mitt Romney has a reputation for flip-flopping, which he acquired during the 2008 campaign and for his record on health care as governor of Massachusetts. Meanwhile, there are doubts about former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s readiness for the national arena. And while Pawlenty remains a cipher to most Republicans, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is entirely too well-known.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, meanwhile, alienated the GOP’s social conservative wing by calling for a “truce” on cultural issues. And Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is an admitted creature of the Washington establishment who has called ideological purity a “dead-dog loser.”

In the wake of the Republican Party’s sweeping victory in 2010, conservatives have less patience than ever for that message. They’re hoping for a nominee who’s a “full conservative,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins — someone who can completely satisfy the economic, social and foreign policy wings, all at the same time.

That Donald Trump, who has changed political parties as many times as he’s changed wives, easily stole the show at CPAC despite unfavorable ratings bigger than his hair, suggests a certain amount of desperation among conservatives.

Trump’s gambit is almost certainly a publicity stunt. What makes it interesting is how eager the conservatives were to embrace him, shifting the afternoon’s schedule at the last minute when he agreed to appear. It speaks to the Republican Party’s leadership vacuum: Only a party deeply dissatisfied with its current slate of candidates would swoon for this guy.

In theory, 2012 could be a good year for Republicans, particularly if job growth doesn’t accelerate. But a solid challenger to President Obama has eluded the conservatives who dominate the party. They need somebody with the looks of John Thune, the managerial experience of Mitt Romney, the folksiness of Mike Huckabee, the Tea Party appeal of Michele Bachmann, the brains of Newt Gingrich and the record of Mitch Daniels. But no such animal exists.

Producer Mark Joseph, who has done a film about Ronald Reagan, outlined the problem in a CPAC session Thursday. "The coalition that President Reagan put together," he said, "is fraying today because it was united by one man who had something in common with all of them."

In the absence of such a beast, the party is fracturing, both on Capitol Hill (where House Republican leaders lost two key votes last week) and at CPAC (where various socially conservative groups boycotted and the chairman, David Keene, accelerated his retirement this week). The lack of enthusiasm for the candidates was on display in the ballroom, where hundreds of seats were empty for speeches by would-be candidates Gingrich and Rick Santorum.

…Trump is correct about Paul’s viability. But the CPAC crowd’s willingness to consider the flamboyant billionaire as an alternative reveals a certain amount of desperation.

Mark Joseph is probably right, about Reagan. There is no one on the conservative front to unite two major factions that never had much in common in the first place.

But the Democrats shouldn’t count on a lack of leadership or an ideological implosion the right. The White House and congressional Democrats should present themselves as a clear, better alternative to the GOP. That means offering bold proposals to create jobs and increase economic growth, showing how Democratic policies will benefit Americans directly, and challenge the GOP to offer their own plan.

The closest we got to that at CPAC was Mitt Romney’s simple plan.

So how would Romney bring jobs back and turnaround the economy?

He didn’t spell it out, saying only: "The right answer is to believe in America – to believe in free enterprise, capitalism, limited government, federalism – and to believe in the constitution, as it was written and intended by the founders."

South Dakota Sen. John Thune suggested overhauling Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and changing how business is done in the partisan capital by ending "backroom deals and big government ways." He ignored the fact that others before him have tried – and failed.

Many were short on specifics on how they’d do it all.

Romney’s speech, however offered a preview of the GOP’s likely 2012 strategy: blame Obama for a financial crisis that started on the GOP’s watch, and a recession fueled by conservative failure going all the way back to Ronald Reagan. And it just might work. if the President and Democrats fail to offer a stark contrast to the GOP’s lack of ideas, and make the case for how their plan will help Americans.

Even if it’s an unwinnable fight, it’s a fight worth having, because it spells out which side Obama and the Democrats are on. The reason for the GOP victory in 2012 was that too many Americans weren’t sure. Too many still aren’t. That could work in the GOP’s favor and give the Democrats their own trouble in 2012, if they fail to offer bold plans on job growth, economic growth, and a real recovery that reaches all Americans — and soon, rather than later.

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