Another day, another politician announces he won’t attend CPAC. The latest entry in this list would be Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. He hasn’t stated why, his spokesman has just stated that he declined the invitation and so there is no sign yet that he is actively boycotting the conference. The same can’t be said of Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina. His spokesman told Politico on Friday that he was not attending since “leading conservatives organizations [are] not participating this year”. CPAC’s defenders have already used this news to play up a narrative: social conservatives are boycotting CPAC because of the inclusion of the homosexual conservative group GOProud. This narrative is incorrect and the media should be vigilant about not misrepresenting it. There are many other reasons for conservatives to not attend the conference.
GOProud has been quick to take credit as the cause of every boycott of CPAC. GOProud Chairman Chris Barron mockingly tweeted in response to DeMint’s announcement: ”Apparently my abs are frightening old straight white guys out of CPAC. I promise to wear a shirt the entire time if that helps.” This sort of self-promotion has led the media to buy into a narrative that the story is only about GOProud. Here are some examples: “Right-wingers skip the annual conservative convention because of the participation of a “gay” Republican group” is the sub-headline of a Salon blog post. “Social Conservatives Boycott CPAC Over Gay Groups, Andrew Breitbart To DJ Party?” asks Mediatie.
There are several problems with this narrative. The first is that this is not a unified boycott. The origination of this boycott “movement” began when the American Principles Project issued a press release back in November announcing their intentions to boycott the conference. Since then, APP’s campaign has focused on encouraging other organizations who were previously co-sponsors of the conference not to sponsor it this year. FrumForum contacted APP soon after DeMint’s office made its announcement, and they told FrumForum that they had not encouraged or pushed Sen. DeMint into making his announcement. The Heritage Foundation has been emphatically stating in its communication to the press that its practicing own boycott of CPAC is not part of any “wider movement.” Some in the media have pointed to the Family Research Council’s “Values Voter Summit” as being a rival to CPAC, and in its own messaging, FRC has also been insistent that they have been promoting their conference “before GOProud was a twinkle in anyone’s eye.”
GOProud is just one problematic datapoint among several that conservatives have with CPAC, and not all of the other datapoints are even related to social conservatism. Conservatives concerned about national security also have reason to be wary of the more isolationist tone at several of the CPAC panels. Last year, Ron Paul’s political organization, the “Campaign for Liberty”, ran an event entitled “Why Real Conservatives Oppose the War on Terror” during Newt Gingrich’s CPAC address. (Video available here.) Think about how an organization such as the Heritage Foundation (which has interests beyond just social conservatism) would view this panel. They would understandably be worried about more from CPAC than just GOProud.
As of the writing of this piece the schedule for CPAC 2011 has not yet been released, so we don’t yet know just how libertarian the conference will be. What we do know though, is that CPAC organizer Grover Norquist has called for a public debate on the cost of the Afghan war and its viability, showing that the debate has moved from just the Ron Paul devotees to the GOP establishment.
The focus on GOProud also distracts from other organizations attending CPAC that conservatives in general may prefer stayed further away. Preeminent among that list would be the John Birch Society, which was at CPAC in 2010 and will be there again in 2011. The presence of GOProud helps make the ACU and CPAC seem like an inclusive “big tent”, while the presence of the John Birch Society suggests that this tent is large enough to include fringe elements of the movement that many had thought were already expunged for being conspiratorial. Its understandable that some organizations and speakers might not wish to be associated at the conference because of venders other than GOProud.
Exactly how representative CPAC is of the conservative movement (and Republican primary voters) is also an open question, one that some of the more high profile speakers might consider before attending. (It’s already a given that the over-enthusiastic conservative activists who attend CPAC as not representative of the country as a whole.) Ron Paul has been able to do very well in the CPAC presidential straw poll and if he wins the straw poll again this year it will have no reflection on how well he will do in the GOP primaries. The speeches given as CPAC have a pseudo-presidential aura to them, and some speakers do gain from the national exposure. However, if CPAC’s audience is less reflective of both the country as a whole and the people likely to vote in a GOP primary, the necessity of attending may be reduced.
While some of the organizations boycotting CPAC are being closed-lipped about their full thoughts on the matter, some reporting has also suggested that there is a degree of personal animus being directed at CPAC’s main organizers, David Keene and Grover Norquist. Some of the reported reasons include frustration that David Keene would do work for FedEx over a regulatory conflict with UPS, and concern about the financial management of the conference.
The irony of course is that GOProud is the most palatable a conservative group that CPAC could hope to get. They even view the issue of gay marriage as a “State Issue” as opposed to agreeing with former Solicitor General Ted Olson that they have an inalienable right to marry guaranteed in the constitution. While GOProud’s presence does disturb many in the conservative world and acts as a convenient excuse not to attend, its clear that the concerns surrounding CPAC are more extensive than just one co-sponsor. Even conservatives who may not view social conservatism as their most important issue would have reasons not to attend or support the conference.