- - Thursday, March 14, 2013

It has only just begun, but CPAC 2013 already has endured some harsh criticism.

These guys should have been invited. Those guys should not have. This panel is outside the scope. That panel should be more prominently featured. So let me rise in defense of the Conservative Political Action Conference — because, goodness knows, not many others will.

Certainly, it has become a big, unwieldy juggernaut. Indeed, the biggest complaint so far among those of us in Washington who have to “work” the event is the move to Gaylord National. It’s not near our offices, or Metro stations or what we think of as “the city.”

The move was necessitated not by the American Conservative Union’s mismanagement of the event, but by its overwhelming success. Even the biggest of convention hotels in Washington no longer have the room to house the event.

As for the speakers, think of these relationships as marriages. The wife puts up with a lot. She tolerates oversights and misspeaks and lates and earlies and no-shows of all kinds. Occasionally, though, she makes the husband sleep on the couch.

Let’s not forget — in fact, let’s never forget — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie embraced President Obama in the last 10 days before a monumental election. He praised the president’s leadership on the response to Superstorm Sandy when no such praise was deserved. And those famously wrong polls before the election? Perhaps they weren’t so wrong. Polls after the election showed as many as 12 percent of American voters switched their votes after that embrace. It is not unreasonable to say Mr. Christie cost Mitt Romney the election, and it is not unreasonable for those who think so to want to make him sleep on the couch.

The same goes for Bob McDonnell. He not only is on track to enact an enormous tax increase, he has removed the user-pays formula for road funding. Yes, something had to be done to bolster state transportation dollars. But increased license and tag fees, and other instruments that let drivers pay for the roads they use were available. Moreover, money from the state fund is subject to diversion to less-effective transit options, rather than what Virginia truly needs — more, bigger and wider roads.

As for Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, it is a show. It is, thankfully, private enterprise. The idea is to draw customers. Whatever one thinks of their limited-government bona fides, Mr. Trump and Mrs. Palin do have followings.

Also, much has been made of the fact the American Conservative Union has continued to prevent GOProud and other homosexual conservative groups from participating. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a co-sponsor of CPAC, is holding a forum titled “Rainbow on the Right: Growing the Coalition; Bringing Tolerance Out Of the Closet,” and Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director and co-founder of GOProud, is on the panel. This is not a CPAC-sanctioned panel, GOProud appears nowhere else in the program, and organizers have indicated they are not yet ready to re-embrace GOProud as a full partner in CPAC.

The American Conservative Union’s only request was that the panel avoid the name-calling and other personal ugliness that have plagued prior discussions of this issue. This seems fair enough.

CPAC is, in some ways, a type of long-form journalism. It is a detailed snapshot of the conservative movement — not to be confused with the conservative electorate, with which it may or may not be in tune at any given moment on any given issue — taken each year in public for all the world to see.

This year, it is examining what went wrong in 2012 and what, within the confines of movement principles, can be done to move forward. All of the panels are part of that — from the Rainbow panel to the panel Saturday morning led by CEI’s new president, Lawson Bader, which will include the heads of the Big Four Washington right-of-center think tanks on the future of their role in the movement. So are panels on energy and immigration policy, and those that deal with regulatory matters and how we might make the case to the public that more rules may not always be the solution to every problem.

It’s easy to criticize CPAC. It’s not easy to corral all of those disparate interests into one, large hotel under one banner. Yet the American Conservative Union has managed to do it again. Come Sunday, we will indeed have our snapshot of “America’s Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives.”

Brian McNicoll is senior director of communications at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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