Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The annual conference features some of the best (and worst) that the conservative movement has to offer. And this year, it most certainly did not disappoint.
This year’s theme for CPAC was “America’s Future: The Next Generation Of Conservatives” and had the byline of “New Challenges, Timeless Principles.” The conference was purported to both feature the finest up-and-coming leaders of the conservative movement and address some of the biggest issues that the conservative movement struggled with in 2012. Both of these goals were, to varying degrees, achieved.
The main stage garnered the majority of the event’s media attention and coverage, and the big-name speakers displayed there most definitely did not disappoint. Office holders such as Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul spoke on both major political issues and guiding philosophical ones. Marco Rubio took a decidedly more hopeful bend, focusing on key ideology and principles of the party moving forward.
Rand Paul, who eventually won the annual Presidential straw poll by a narrow margin over Rubio, was also a crowd-pleaser. Much like his father Ron Paul, his libertarian followers came out in force to promote him. During his speech, Paul’s staffers seeded the crowd with “Stand with Rand” signs, playing off of his recent filibuster on the floor of the Senate. Paul took the opportunity to encourage more libertarian policy positions within the Republican party at large on subjects like the war on drugs.
Even Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts Governor and competition to President Obama in the 2012 election, gave a good speech. He offered a heartfelt admission of his own failure on November 6, and reaffirmed that while he was worried about the future of the country, he has renewed faith in the American people.
However, many main stage speeches were meant to be crowd-pleasers, and some came off (much like Rand Paul’s speech) as early campaign posturing for 2014 and 2016. The real work that needed to be done at the conference, discussing the failures of the November race and the future of the conservative movement, was going on in the breakout sessions and panel discussions elsewhere at the convention.
This was where I spent the majority of my time at CPAC, and I was pleased with this decision. Many of the panels were designed to discuss campaign strategies and grassroot organizing tactics. However, others were focused on the major problems that arose during the 2013 campaign.
One panel of up-and-coming female leaders in the conservative movement, including Townhall columnist and best-selling writer Katie Pavlich, discussed the “War on Women” tactic that so brilliantly destroyed public faith in Republican candidates across the country. Leaders like Todd Akin of “legitimate rape” fame had horrific effects on the party’s national profile when they were lifted up as false examples of all conservative candidates. In contrast, recent political events surrounding the gun control debate have demonstrated serious problems of misogyny among liberals, who have tried to tell women nationwide what’s really in their best interests when it comes to self-defense (hint: it’s not gun ownership).
Other panels discussed the election itself. One panel titled “Should We Shoot All The Consultants Now?” discussed the awful mismanagement of not only Romney’s campaign, but those of other major Republican leaders who lost in the Senate and House races. Pat Caddell, Democrat consultant and Fox News contributor, was a featured member of the panel along with Leadership Institute founder and Republican National Committee (RNC) member Morton Blackwell.
Caddell and Blackwell were very attentive to the structural failures of the Republican establishment, who often relied on the poor advice and mismanaged leadership of corrupt and failed party insiders. Two political consultants also sat on the panel, and were unwilling to criticize all consultants in the name of rooting out the bad. Their argument was that the quasi-incestuous political relationships inside the party needed to be broken down, but the job of the consultant in general was still important.
Still other panels focused on major social issues and outreach concerns. One panel on reclaiming the younger generation of voters discussed issues ranging from abortion to gay marriage, and in their discussion tapped into many of the cultural differences between youth voters and older populations. Another (which I was unable to attend) discussed the Republican party’s issues with minority populations, and tapped into the disconnect between how many minority voters actually agree with conservative principles, and were somehow still turned off by Republican leaders who failed to reach across cultural and ethnic divisions.
All in all, the speakers and panels were indicative of a strong and hopeful conservative movement. While CPAC cannot serve as an instant fix to these problems, it certainly set many conservatives on the right path and started many important discussions. If this momentum and serious reflection on ideology continues into 2014 and 2016, I have no doubt it will translate into serious victories on Election Day.
David Giffin is a second-year Masters in Theological Studies student at the Candler School of Theology from Charleston, Ill.