The 41st annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, closed on Saturday evening after having dominated the political news for three days.
As in the past, the conference attracted thousands of conservative activists and hundreds of reporters looking to analyze or mock their positions and potential influence on the nation’s politics.
Those seeking conflict within the movement found “evidence” of that conflict. There were all kinds of conservatives in attendance: libertarians, free-marketers, social conservatives, national defense conservatives, paleoconservatives and neoconservatives. These factions come to spend three days arguing issues and positions.
The libertarians, as always, supported the legalization of marijuana and homosexual rights.
They, along with paleoconservatives and those from all the other “camps” except the neocons argued for a more restrained foreign policy, while virtually everyone in attendance advocated reduced federal spending and budget discipline. To anyone expecting a show of lockstep ideological homogeneity, it must have seemed chaotic.
What few of the reporters shocked by the differences among conservatives and their willingness to debate their differences in a public forum realized is that for virtually all of its 41 years, CPAC has reflected the modern American conservative movement composed of at least three and, possibly, more wings.
Ronald Reagan, who spoke at the first CPAC and returned to speak at 13 more, often referred to the conservative coalition as “a three-legged stool” held up by economic, social and strong national defense conservatives. They might argue among themselves, but at the end of the day, they always came together to support politicians who would advance the values they shared.
Reagan’s “three-legged stool” was a graphic way of describing the successful efforts of Frank Meyer and William F. Buckley Jr. to turn a movement from a sort of philosophical debating club into a political force. They thought that people who differed on some important policies or emphasized very different issues could be persuaded to work together.
Meyer called it “fusionism” and argued successfully that these factions shared basic values — freedom, free markets and traditional values — and the same enemies.
He believed correctly that each faction’s vision of a free society was equally threatened domestically by a growing and intrusive government and by those who wanted to run the lives of men and women fully capable and with a right to make their own choices, and internationally by the world communist movement then centered in the Soviet Union.
It worked — fractious as ever, conservatives began to come together and actually elect people to public office. A movement whose critics had dismissed as a joke elected one of its own as president in 1980 and turned the politics of this country and the world on its ear.
Today, Ronald Reagan is revered by Americans of all stripes, but the attacks on him during his lifetime make the criticisms of President Obama that liberal progressives whine about seem tame. His personality, his beliefs and the fact that the policies actually worked turned things around at home and abroad, and transformed a much maligned former actor into a populist legend.
The world and the conservative movement have changed in many ways since the Reagan years.
By vanquishing the Soviet Union and stabilizing a freer and more vibrant economy, a generation of Americans grew up without having to hide under their desks during nuclear-bomb drills in school or experience the inflation that Reagan wrestled to the ground after his election in 1980. They never really knew what they missed and moved on to other issues and problems.
However, after Sept. 11, 2001, and after living through two wars that seemed to go on forever and a terrible recession, they’re now suffering through a “RINO” recovery — a “Recovery in Name Only.”
They are part of a generation that for the first time in American history, according to the polls, actually fears their government and are wondering how one copes with a dangerous world without making them and their country its sole policeman.
The politicians who addressed this year’s CPAC had different answers. Florida’s Marco Rubio, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, favor a far more aggressive foreign policy, while Rand Paul and others aren’t sure that’s a good idea.
Some who spoke at the conference are so focused on attacking a failed president that they spend little time presenting conservative alternatives. But others, like Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan, argue that while rejecting bad ideas is necessary, advancing good ones is just as important.
What one sensed at this year’s CPAC is that basic conservative commonalities are still widely shared by a new crop of conservative activists who were babies or less when Reagan rode off in to the sunset.
It remains hard work, and the media have seldom been an ally in spreading the conservative message. With a hundred different ways to reach voters directly and thousands of CPAC attendees in our army, conservatives are seeing possibilities in 2014 and 2016.
Still, they know, as Meyer and Buckley knew, that if they can make the ideas that changed the world into which they were born as attractive to Americans today as they were then, they may build that city upon a hill that was at the center of Reagan’s dream.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.