The recently-concluded Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, DC began brilliantly and ended with a thud. The organizers deserve the credit for the former, but have only themselves to blame for the latter.
I attended all three days, and heard many of the speeches. A distinguished number of conservative leaders, commentators and thinkers were invited to come and to speak. Much of the discussion was upbeat, inspired by recent expressions of voters at the polls, a trend which gives Republicans and conservatives considerable optimism for the upcoming national elections in 2010 and 2012.
One of my favorite parts of CPAC is the large exhibition hall where conservative groups, institutions and publications reach out to the thousands of conservatives attendees (most of whom are under 30) with books, tapes, brochures, pamphlets, buttons, bumper stickers, other souvenirs and personal interaction to advance their causes and products.
Apparently, the Conservative Union (which funds and produces CPAC) has been applying less and less control of this part of the program. I have attended CPAC three times now (but not last year), and I have noticed more and more fringe groups exhibiting. I am not speaking of the Tea Party and its supporters which I consider a genuine grass roots conservative movement, and whether you agree with it or not, deserving of praise for their efforts. On the other hand, the movement led by Congressman Ron Paul, for example, has actively insinuated itself into the Republican Party for several years now. This is, at base, a libertarian movement which goes over the deep end in its ideas about foreign policy. Ron Paul, who once was the Libertarian Party's candidate for president, won a congressional seat as a Republican. Many thoughtful and sincere libertarians feel that Mr. Paul distorts many true libertarian ideas. Other groups and individuals exhibiting at CPAC expressed extreme views, many of them obsessed by conspiratorial theories and whacked out ideas.
The Ron Paulites and the others, of course, have every right to hold their views, speak their minds, and to organize lawfully as a political force. Every presidential election year in New Hampshire and Iowa, "weird" candidates show up running for president. It IS a free country, and they have the right to do so. But the rest of us have every right to regard their ideas as wrong headed and extreme.
During most of the three days of CPAC, many brilliant and inspirational speakers addressed the serious issues of our time, offering creative ideas and thoughtful strategies for fixing the nation's serious problems. They were all conservatives, although some disagreed with other conservative viewpoints. Potential presidential candidates also spoke, and gave attendees and those watching across the nation by television a glimpse of their priorities and personalities.
At the very end, however, CPAC held a presidential straw poll. Less than a third of those who attended the conference voted, and less than ten per cent of those who attended voted for the straw poll winner, Ron Paul.
Liberal opponents of conservatism, and Democrats, understandably seized on this poll result to suggest that CPAC was an out-of-the-mainstream extremist event. Who can blame them for doing so? I think the Conservative Union and CPAC organizers should think long and hard about discontinuing the straw poll in future conferences. If they do not, they will likely again face what happened this year, namely that their hard work will be remembered by an inconsequential
event that will be magnified and exaggerated, and the accomplishments of their conference will be lost in the public perception as a result.