Al Cardenas' Vision for the American Conservative Union

Less than a month after he succeeded David Keene as chairman of the American Conservative Union, Al Cardenas sat down with HUMAN EVENTS to discuss the outlook for the ACU and the conservative movement.

A Florida co-chairman of Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign and the 1978 Republican opponent to longtime Rep. Claude Pepper (D.-Fla.), Miami attorney Cardenas, whose family came from Cuba, has been in active in most of the modern conservative political battles.  As head of the nation’s oldest national conservative organization, which is the main sponsor of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the 59-year-old Cardenas will no doubt be a player in helping direct the movement in the coming decade.
So, we asked, given his background and his new position, how does Cardenas feel about the Tea Party movement?

“I’m exited,” he told us, “[and] I think for all the good reasons.  I don’t think it’s a fleeting movement that will last a cycle or two.  I really think there’s a re-energizing of the average American who has kind of lost faith in both political parties.

“They put their stock in one party only to be disenchanted.  The Republican Party, which I gave a lot of the years of my life to, in spite of its successes in 2010, still has its brand name very undervalued and probably for all the right reasons.  And every Tea Party event is all about issues, whether it’s a D or an R.  And the amazing part about people is they’ve got great instincts, as Americans usually do.”

But the ACU chairman did not give a blanket endorsement of the Tea Party movement.  He added, “They don’t really have a toolbox of principles.  [The Tea Party movement] is probably a less-educated conservative movement group than any I have witnessed in my 40 years of being [politically] active.  They will get upset.  They know that they’re angry and they have a pretty good idea that they’re going to support change, but they don’t really understand what principles drive us to why those changes take effect and why there’s this set of principles this movement is about.”

This has brought Cardenas to what he feels is his most important mission at the helm of ACU:  “We really should be the retail marketers of what [conservative think tanks] come up with.  That’s kind of how I envision the ACU.  And CPAC is a good demonstration of that.”

As part of his mission to mobilize Tea Partiers as activists, Cardenas has called for regionalizing CPAC.  As he put it, “The [conservative] movement can’t continue to be just ‘Beltway-centric.’  You’ve got regional think tanks that are coming up with good content and we ought to tap it.  These Tea Party activists are not going to have some national network of organizations.  They like to have it the way it is.  And with Twitter and Facebook, the new technology, they can mobilize in ways that otherwise you need a national organization structure for.”

Recognizing the importance of regional CPACs such as those in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Colorado, Cardenas believes there should also be  local versions of the national CPAC.

“What I’d like to see us do is have four or five a year,” he said, “and rotate areas.  Go to LA, Dallas, and the next year go to different cities and try to tap those Tea Party activists to fill a room.”

“Maybe it won’t be 12,000 people, maybe it will be 2,000.  And the idea is, ‘Look, we’ve got some issues now that take a while to get people to fully understand: entitlement reform, pension reform.’  This is the kind of stuff that you really need to go around the country and spend time on for people to really embrace and understand.”

“It’s easy to explain why somebody shouldn’t fund National Public Radio, but it’s a lot harder to get people to understand how you tackle entitlement reform.  That takes time, that takes effort, that takes content, and that’s what these regional CPACs ought to be about.”

Reviewing the recent national CPAC, Cardenas addressed the controversy surrounding participation [with a booth in the exhibit hall] by the Republican gay group GOProud.  He feels “the problem is that GOProud didn’t help us any in being inclusive, because they used that platform to be quite aggressive [outside CPAC].  They started taunting some of our board members.”

“The ideal GOProud participation would have been, ‘You know what, guys?  This is an inclusive society.  We’re as interested in these fiscal issues as you are.  Fill your website with fiscal issues that you’re for and be a mainstream discusser of issues.  We just happen to have a different lifestyle.’  And if they’d done that, they would have laid the groundwork for things that would have been pretty good.’”

Cardenas also voiced optimism about the future of Hispanics in the Republican Party.  He cited the elections of conservative Republican Governors Susana Martinez in New Mexico and Brian Sandoval in Nevada, and Sen. Marco Rubio from his own state.  All, Cardenas noted, “won because they ran as mainstreamers, not catering to a particular cultural identification or ethnicity identification.  They ran as Americans.”

“I’ve always said that we’ll have a better chance of matching Democrats in Congress [among] Hispanics when we ourselves don’t worry about [GOP] Hispanics having to run in a district that is 60% Hispanic.  Just find the right candidate to run in the right district, and that’s the best way to go about this.”

For more than three decades, going back to Ronald Reagan’s historic 1976 campaign, Al Cardenas has been involved in all aspects of conservative politics.  Now, as chairman of the ACU, he is sure to be involved even more extensively as conservatism enters a fresh, challenging, most productive time.