CPAC 2012: it's time for the party to unite

As more than 10,000 participants gather at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Feb. 9-11 in Washington, D.C. to visit with many different leaders of the conservative movement from around the country, they will hear discussed all the controversial issues of the day and, equally important, they will be presented with many ways and means to unite against the incumbent president.

Those who come to CPAC regularly told us they expect the gathering of some of the conservative movement’s most energized activists to be one where the party’s fissures are exposed and discussed, as well as one where the scope of the challenge and the big tasks ahead in the presidential and congressional election year are sorted out and calls to action heard loud and clear.

“We face the morality of Chicago, the self-interest of greed and the power of incumbency,” Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, told HUMAN EVENTS. He said that he expected CPAC attendees to be optimistic “with an understanding that the other team is very serious about holding onto power.”

CPAC will be the launching pad for the conservative movement’s 2012 campaign efforts, just as President Obama’s State of the Union address last month kicked off his 2012 campaign, said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which has long sponsored the annual CPAC.

It will be “ground zero” for the fight for the Republican nomination, said Cardenas, who predicted, “there will be fireworks and that is what makes CPAC exciting.

Among the scheduled speakers: Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and current and former presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Herman Cain.

Differences from 2008

Notably, much has changed from CPAC of four years ago, the last time a presidential election was in full swing. At CPAC 2008, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney announced he was suspending his campaign for President. At that time, many conservatives saw him as an imperfect, but acceptable alternative for a movement in which many were opposed to Romney’s rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Today, President Barack Obama’s election and policies have galvanized conservatives against Obama and his agenda. The tea party movement, formed in response to Obama’s policies as well as to some big-government Republican policies of the past decade, propelled Republicans back into relevance during the 2010 midterm elections.

Conservatives and fireworks

The “fireworks,” as Cardenas called it, are likely to come largely from supporters of the various presidential candidates who will flood the hotel handing out material. Also there will be many vocal conservatives frustrated with what they view as various big-spending Republicans in Congress, spotlighting the gap between Tea Partiers and those many call establishment Republicans. Any fireworks would not be unprecedented. In 1975, Ronald Reagan delivered his famous speech at CPAC in which he advocated the politics of “bold” conservatism over that of “pale pastels.”

Craig Shirley, Reagan historian and biographer, reminded us that Reagan attended CPAC every year from 1973 to 1988—with the exception of 1976 and 1980, when he was campaigning—“because he liked conservatives and conservatism.” But, Nelson Rockefeller and Gerald Ford never attended CPAC .

What tea partiers are saying

Steve Bannon, who has made many influential films chronicling tea party conservatives, will be premiering at CPAC a movie about conservatives that features stalwarts like radio talk show host Mark Levin and columnist Michelle Malkin. He said conservatives should play “hard to get” and reject any call for unity unless “we make a deal where the conservative voice is guaranteed to be heard,” such as in platforms and policies that the eventual nominee will have to enforce. Teri Christoph, co-founder of Smart Girl Politics, which has organized conservative women around the country, told HUMAN EVENTS that much tension between the establishment and the grassroots stems from the fact that the “establishment types” have been around for many election cycles and “might be less likely to think that big changes can be made” while the “tea party types are newer to politics and activism, and they are not willing to accept the idea that things can’t be changed, and they want that change right now.”

“[The members of the establishment] have to stop thinking of tea party conservatives as a temporary phenomenon,” Christoph said.

Rachel Swaffer, a Ron Paul supporter from Hillsdale College that annually treks to CPAC, told HUMAN EVENTS that she was frustrated with the Republican Party because it “alternates between ignoring and disparaging the libertarian movement” and that CPAC “lends legitimacy to the growing libertarian, small government movement.”

Building bridges at CPAC

Ed Allie, a conservative from Massachusetts who supports Mitt Romney and will be attending CPAC, told HUMAN EVENTS that the party establishment “needs to recognize the “fresh blood” that the tea party brings to the table in enthusiasm and ideas” but that the “tea party needs to recognize that some level of compromise is necessary” while “both groups need to realize they are more powerful and effective together than either is apart.”

Allie, Christoph, and Swaffer all agreed that CPAC would present many opportunities and events for conservatives of all stripes to start building bridges.

“CPAC really does provide a great service to the conservative movement by bringing together the old and new guards,” Christoph said.

It is perhaps fitting then that Palin is delivering the closing address to CPAC this year for she has been such a fierce critic of Obama.

Palin also has repeatedly said that any of the Republican candidates would be better compared with Obama. So Palin’s voice, as Bannon noted, may be important in the long run, as a reminder that conservatism is not associated with one person, and that may be the ultimate bridge that links the grassroots and the establishment in opposition against Obama in the fall.

In the end, Norquist predicted that the opposition against Obama would unite all. “As each CPAC activist leaves the hotel Sunday morning, American Conservative Union staffers will whisper ‘Obama, stimulus, government takeover of your healthcare’ in their ear,” Norquist jokingly said. “That will unite us.”