John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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CPAC at 40

Posted on March 6, 2014
George W. Bush speaks at 2008 Conservative Political Action Conference

George W. Bush speaks at 2008 Conservative Political Action Conference

CPAC started small, with a few Young Americans for Freedom (better known as Yaffers) and some folks from the American Conservative Union coming together to plot the future of a movement.

Richard Nixon was President, America was in the throes of social and cultural revolution, memories of Barry Goldwater’s epic failure in 1964 was still relatively fresh in the minds of activists, and Ronald Reagan was the hero they all hoped would save them.

Thirteen years later, Reagan would speak to a CPAC meeting in his 6th year as President. Certain elements of the movement thought the Reagan of ’86 wasn’t nearly as ideal as the Reagan of 1973, but politicians, once they assume the powers of office, never are able to govern as idealistically as they want to govern.

Governing requires a modicum of practicality.   That is why most politicians who arise to leadership levels usually disappoint their most ardent supporters.  Barack Obama has disappointed his liberal base, George W. Bush disappointed his conservative base, and Bill Clinton went out of his way to triangulate his political base.

That’s how you win reelection.  And that is how you have to govern.

Sure, you have to keep your promises (which is why you should always make vague promises, if you make any at all), and you have to stay true to your principles as best you can, but being the leader of a political movement is far different than being the leader of a country.

CPAC, by its very nature, is not a governing conference.   It is a conference of ideologues for ideologues.  Those who attend CPAC tend to be either very young (college students or recent college grads) or very old (like Phyllis Schlafly and Brent Bozell).   In other words, the people who have time to go to CPAC are either looking for jobs or retired from their jobs.

CPAC does not represent a broad cross-section of the American electorate, the Republican primary voter or even the conservative movement.  But it sure makes for some good television.  In fact, somebody noted that CPAC gets more media coverage than just about any other political event outside of the conventions.

CPAC has been around a lot longer than the Tea Party movement.  They both provide a challenge to the Republican Party though.    I assume that several Tea Party organizations got their start a CPAC, opening booths, trying to get people to pay attention to whatever issues they most care about.

And that’s what people forget about CPAC.  They see the big speakers, folks like Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin, who give the big speeches that capture the attention of media.  But it is in the booths where much of the business of the conservative movement gets done.

At CPAC, you see a lot of people hawking books.   You have organizations that are trying to get support.  You have the gun folks, the end-the-Fed folks, the pro-life folks, the copyright protection folks, the anti-immigration folks, the pro-immigration folks, conservatives of all colors, and this year, you even have a gay Republican group.

The diversity of the conservative movement can be a great strength, as long as everybody is united in a common cause.  But lately, there is been a low-level civil war.  The Tea Party is upsetting the apple cart.  They want revolution, not evolution.  They want to mount a hostile take-over of the Republican Party.   They don’t want to take prisoners.  They want to shoot them.

Ted Cruz speaks to this impulse within the movement.  He sees guys like Mitch McConnell more as the problem than as the solution.

Maybe that’s why McConnell brought a gun into the CPAC Hall this morning.

McConnell has more than a rifle to defend him.  He also has a record as a leader and as a conservative that stacks up with any Senate Republican Leader in the last 50 years.

McConnell got a pretty warm reception from the Yaffers in the crowd.  I assume a lot that has to do with his prop, but they were also giving him props for walking into the lion’s den and speaking truth to power.    Or if some of those in the crowd get their way, out of power.

Because for some of these folks, they would rather be out of power than in power actually running the government.

I have been listening to a lot of belly aching from some Tea Party folks about how the Republican leadership doesn’t have any spine, about how they don’t have the courage to shut down the government, to breach the debt limit, to allow the banks to fail, etc, etc.  I hear about from them about how we have to get rid of crony capitalism, how we have to balance the budget, how we need to abolish the IRS and how lobbyists are to blame for all of the world’s ills.

Let’s say for a second that we followed their advice.  Let’s say we let the banks fail and let the American car companies go bankrupt.  Let’s say we breached the debt limit and then kept the government shut down.  Let’s say that we got rid of all government support for all of American companies, that we slashed all government spending on the military and most discretionary spending to get to a balanced budget, that we actually got rid of the IRS so we couldn’t collect any tax revenues to keep the government running, and that we banned anybody from petitioning their elected representatives in an effort to eradicate lobbyists from the face of the globe.

I imagine America would look something like the aftermath of that television show “Revolution.”

When Ronald Reagan ran for President, he offered a positive vision of a strong, vibrant America, confident and free, welcoming yet resolved to expand freedom in every corner of the globe.   It would be hard to find that shining city on the Hill in the dystopia that would emerge after the Tea Party got through with it.