CPAC Begins, but Does It Still Matter?

Starting today, Rep. Michele Bachmann, former governors Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich will grace the same stage. No, it's not a 2012 GOP convention nightmare; it's CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, held in Washington, D.C., and continuing through Saturday.

This is the 37th year of the three-day annual event and, according to David Keene, until this week chairman of CPAC and the American Conservative Union, which sponsors the conference, it remains the preeminent "gathering place for conservative activists, writers and politicians to meet each other, share experiences, debate issues ... and make plans for the coming year."

Around 11,000 activists are expected to attend this year's CPAC -- the organization boasted upwards of 10,000 activists last year -- and even more will watch or listen to the proceedings via the Internet.

But despite the buzz-worthy speakers and anticipated record crowd, this year more than ever has heard griping from those who wonder what such an inside baseball weekend accomplishes for the conservative movement as a whole -- and whether the conference has strayed too far from its origins.

For the first time, GOProud, a group that represents gay conservatives, is one of the co-sponsors of CPAC this year. As a result, conservative groups like the Family Research Council, Heritage Foundation, and more notably, politicians like Sen. Jim DeMint, have all declined to attend the event. DeMint's spokesman, Wesley Denton told Politico: "With leading conservative organizations not participating this year, Sen. DeMint will not be attending. He hopes to attend a unified CPAC next year."

At heart, the controversy is about the place of social issues in what many call the three-legged-stool of contemporary conservatism: national security, fiscal responsibility and social issues. If true conservatism lies in the equal standing of all three issues, GOProud's inclusion is just the most obvious sign that CPAC has veered from what it represented at its founding, critics say. Ronald Reagan spoke at the group's very first meeting in 1974, and would find it unrecognizable, they allege.

"The issue is not that GOProud works on only four of the five traditional items on the conservative agenda -- rather, it omits -- because it actively opposes -- one part of the core," a number of conservative groups said in a letter calling for a boycott of the conference.

Not all members of the traditional right agree. Jason Mattera, an editor at Human Events magazine, says the entire controversy is "much ado about nothing," since GOProud consists of "two gay dudes at a booth."

The event still delivers a microcosm of the national pulse, uniting thousands of conservatives from around the country via shared values of "limited government and free enterprise, which is what beats in the hearts of most Americans too, as the last election demonstrated," he said. Though, he admits, he's biased: As a political junkie, he's attended CPAC for nearly ten years and finds it "fantastic."

Keene acknowledged the controversy but says it fails to signal a rift among conservatives. "We have always had disputes over the primacy of certain issues and, indeed, over which groups and views should be allowed to participate," he said.

Still, aside from speeches by presidential hopefuls, the conference consists mainly of panels discussing topics such as, "How Political Correctness Is Harming America's Military" and "Are We Superman? Using School Choice and Homeschools to Grow the Conservative Movement."

Among the dozens of forums, only two focus on such archetypal social conservative issues as marriage and the pro-life movement. The rest cover topics ranging from health care to the Tea Party.

CPAC might not be picking a fight with social conservatives, but its not going out of its way to give them the spotlight, either.

One reason may well be the demographics of CPAC's large audience. Over half of the attendees are college-aged, a demographic CPAC organizers specifically target in order to encourage involvement in -- and even careers with -- think tanks and the political world. Attendees also meet other like-minded young people and "enjoy a weekend away from the doctrinaire liberalism that dominates so many campuses," says Keene.

The importance of the conference to the next generation -- which is notably more liberal on gay rights than are older conservatives -- won't change, Keene says. The 130 plus organizations involved in CPAC "differ on many issues, but share basic values."

"There will be libertarians, traditional and religious conservatives and national defense conservatives in attendance. Many of these folks work on radically different agendas and CPAC is the only annual event that tries to bring them all together," Keene says.

It's hard to imagine the attendees and speakers will be of one mind this year, but they'll get to play the part for a few days before the real fight for 2012 -- and the meaning of contemporary conservatism -- begins.

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