Do Conservatives Need CPAC?

The early evening at the Conservative Political Action Conference allows ample time for participants to take stock of the day or perhaps to browse through the interest groups that paid for exhibition space in the hall.  Ambling through the enormous lobby of the Marriott Wardman Park hotel, eavesdropping on conversations, it hits you immediately: CPAC is not a grassroots convention. Its success -- the highest attendance ever -- is evidence that CPAC has outlived its usefulness to the conservative movement.  It has become a place to network and cheer at applause lines -- nothing more. Leave the hall and end the day, and you've had a good time, but you don't feel fulfilled. CPAC is a guilty pleasure.

Conservative millennial activists are very excited. They are numerous. They're inventing new political technologies.  They are eager to get to work.  They are the future of the Republican Party, but you wouldn't know it at CPAC -- which is still organized around the same defensive culture war paradigms that birthed it in 1974.

Most CPACers are young; and so they are a generation removed from CPAC's founding assumptions. They don't identify with its leaders -- who among them mourned the death of Irving Kristol? It is a bit discordant to see so many young activists at a convention sponsored by the Old Guard of the movement; the American Conservative Union exemplifies thirty years of orthodox Washington-centric conservative political action. David Keene, the ACU's long-time chief, is a lobbyist, of all things, by day. Not to say that CPAC is catholic: Ron Paul and Glenn Beck are not of the Washington cadre that includes Keene.  

CPAC isn't supposed to be a policy conference, which is fortunate, because policy is almost non-existent. Some of the panels are set up to rehearse the conservative-libertarian divide over certain issue sets, but no ideas get advanced at CPAC. Judging by the exhibitors, conservatives don't care about education, or the environment, or health care, or urban policy -- only abortion, Supreme Court nominations, gun rights, campaign finance (Citizens United has a very nice booth) and deifying Ronald Reagan.  Sure, they're entertained -- a bunch of creative young folks are hosting a sumo wrestling contest that is supposed to represent the individual's struggle against "Big Sister Janet" -- as in Napolitano, who is supposedly trying to clamp down on domestic dissent. (The winner gets an actual trophy). The NRA has a virtual shooting gallery. Several organizations tried to generate interest by giving away iPods in raffles.

No one ought to be begrudge conservatives for having a good time, but a good time isn't what the movement needs: what it needs is an infrastructure that exists to promote the ideas of the millennial generation.  CPAC does not provide that or even hint that such a thing exists. Note: do not confuse an amplification infrastructure -- the conservatives have a huge megaphone, ranging from talk radio to Pajamas Media to Fox News -- with a political infrastructure, which  turns ideas into policies and modernizes the party.

Intellectually honest conservatives are homeless. Those who see shades between red and blue (but still mostly red) have to select from a buffet and hope the tastes don't clash; aside from a few start-ups, where is the modern conservative equivalent of the Center for American Progress?  Who is responsible for recruiting millennial conservatives who will run on issues that millennial conservatives care about? (They don't care about gay rights or gun rights.)   This seems like a small problem now, because a certain segment of the American right -- the Perotista-Buchananite-economically anxious middle-aged white part of it -- is the dominant force in American politics. It will be a problem in twenty years, in a more majority-minority nation, when demographic changes create a structural bias in favor of the Democratic Party; when the counties around Philadelphia will no longer be seen as swing.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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