The year the American Conservative Union began, Ronald Reagan was a newly minted Republican, Nikita Khrushchev had been recently ousted as leader of the Soviet Union, and the U.S. was just beginning to deepen its involvement in the Vietnam War.
Fifty years later, the U.S. is extricating itself from war in Afghanistan, Russia’s leader is extending his reach into Ukraine, and the tea party is exerting its influence among Republican voters.
Through all the changes and challenges, the ACU has promoted the values and goals of principled conservatism. Now, the organization is looking to build on that legacy over the next 50 years.
“The conservative movement has had its very good times and its challenging times, and here we are 50 years later still fighting the good fight,” said ACU Chairman Al Cardenas. “The 50th anniversary is just as important as the first anniversary because it finds us at equally troubled times, but understanding the needs for a victory to get our country back on track.”
The catalyst for the American Conservative Union boils down to one crushing defeat.
It was 1964 and Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee, had been trounced by Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, sounding what many thought was the death knell of conservatism. Days after Goldwater’s loss, a handful of conservative leaders who included author and commentator William F. Buckley Jr. and Rep. Robert E. Bauman, founder of Young Americans for Freedom, gathered to decide the next step.
“It was a big setback for us, the Goldwater defeat,” said Thomas Winter, first vice chairman of the ACU and a longtime board member. “What we wanted to show, what we did show, was the conservative movement was still strong. Conservatives were still around and could not be ignored.”
That December, the American Conservative Union’s board of directors held its first meeting at what is now the Capital Hilton Hotel and laid out the group’s core beliefs — the primacy of the U.S. Constitution, the preservation of liberty via limited government, the protection of capitalism and private property, and the promotion of individual responsibility.
During its first decade, the ACU worked to gain momentum and expand its membership and reputation. It delved into political action by creating the American Legislative Exchange Council and establishing its Ratings of Congress, which is still used to hold congressional members accountable for their votes.
In 1974, the first Conservative Political Action Conference was held.
“I can tell you, it was a very frenzied month of January,” Mr. Roberts said. “It was our very first conference. All the infrastructure had yet to be put in place; our mailing list, all sorts of things. It was a very challenging but exciting atmosphere.”
The conference drew about 400 registrants, and nearly 1,000 people filled the Mayflower Hotel ballroom to hear a speech delivered by California Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Mr. Roberts said he remembered it as one of the first times Reagan spoke about the “shining city upon the hill” and the future president’s introduction of three recently released prisoners of the Vietnam War, including a Navy officer named John McCain.
Former ACU Chairman Stan Evans, who presided over the first CPAC, credits the organization’s work with Reagan as one of the highlights of the ACU’s first 50 years, but that doesn’t mean the path was easy.
“We were subjected to every epithet and insult — that we were kooks, far out, fringe, on the margin, Reagan was a dunce, freeman, radical — all this was said about Reagan and his supporters,” he said. “In those years, it was identical to what is being said today about the tea party, exactly the same stuff.”
CPAC is one of the milestones of the ACU’s journey, but Mr. Roberts said a highlight for him was the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Buckley v. Valeo, which allowed independent expenditures in political campaigns.
That decision allowed the organization to help Reagan’s struggling presidential campaign and made a major impact in the North Carolina primary in particular.
“It had been written off by that point, but he came back in North Carolina, a very strong rebound, and almost won the nomination,” Mr. Roberts said.
That turnaround left Reagan poised for victory in 1980.
“It was a great time for young conservatives like me to be alive,” Mr. Roberts said. “It was a key period in American political history. We had a conservative intellectual movement that was transitioning to a successful political movement.
“The American Conservative Union is, I think, one of the most consequential organizations in the last 50 years of American political life, without question.”
Although the ACU has had its triumphs, the organization also has encountered hurdles and anticipates more challenges ahead.
“The ACU then and now was an effort to bring together all the different elements of the conservative movements to do things like support candidates, support legislation, to make pronouncements on behalf of conservative points of view,” Mr. Evans said.
The difference, however, is that Reagan was the one leader who could unite conservatives.
For Carly Fiorina, chairwoman of the American Conservative Union Foundation, the focus is on reminding Americans of the conservative principles, which “actually work to improve the state of people’s lives, grow our economy, make our country a better place in the 21st century.”
Acknowledging that future lawmakers are important to conservatives, Ms. Fiorina said the opportunity now and in the long run is to educate people about the conservative principles and how they can apply to everyday life.
“Yes, we have an election in 2014, an election in 2016, but we have fundamental reforms that are necessary in government,” said Ms. Fiorina, a former business executive and Senate candidate. “It’s a challenge and opportunity to reach out to as many people as possible, because to succeed we have to grow our movement while not sacrificing our core principles. How we walk that line is very important.”
Mr. Cardenas agreed that while the upcoming elections are important, reminding the American people about conservative fundamentals is the top priority.
“The first challenge is for the movement to be united,” he said. “That’s required to move forward toward victory.”
“We have to reach out to the American people directly,” he said. “The way to do that is by a more active person-to-person approach to politics, social media, rallies, the kind of efforts to help spread the word and win over converts.”
Rather than rejecting someone for their beliefs, it’s about persuasion, he said.
“You can’t get to a majority that way. You have to persuade them to join your ranks,” Mr. Cardenas said. “Our job is not so much in the electoral arena; our job is moving the political thought and inclinations of the American people toward the conservative movement. Once we accomplish that, the rest follows.”