- - Monday, September 21, 2015


As the former chairman of the American Conservative Union, I have watched, with pride, the structural growth of the movement. When William Buckley, Stanley Evans and other founders created ACU 52 years ago as our country’s first conservative organization, they embarked on a mission that has been joined by dozens of other important conservative groups, publications and social media outlets. Conservatives now have as many, or more, resources, activists and popular opinion makers as the Republican National Committee itself.

At a time when there were far fewer of us and our resources were negligible in comparison to today’s post-Citizens United Supreme Court decision world, we were able to succeed in the nomination of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the shaping of the RNC’s platform and future of the GOP in 1976. It was a time when conservatives coalesced behind a proven leader of the movement as our presidential candidate from the get-go.

A cursory analysis of the 2016 presidential primary shows that over 50 percent of current primary voters are favoring three candidates without prior public service experience but with enough previous pronouncements to indicate that it’s unlikely they could adequately meet traditional standards of conservative values unless a significant philosophical evolution has taken place, that is possible but remains to be seen. The rest of the field is a combination of proven center right and conservative candidates with past or current public service experience as U.S. senators and governors. A number of these candidates have a proven conservative track record but are currently relegated to single-digit numbers.

It is important to discuss now among the leadership of the movement what exactly has brought this about, discern our role in this phenomena and what steps — if any — we should undertake moving forward. Here is my take:

• Around 2006, the conservative movement rightfully reached a boiling point with the Republican leadership as our spending was out of control, our national debt began to spiral and the early consideration of certain Supreme Court candidates became a rallying cry for most of us.

• Our losses to democrats in 2008, the election of Barack Obama and the passage of Obamacare led many of us to believe that we had been far too passive and the GOP had reverted to the days of yore; that all of the philosophical gains made during the Reagan era had evaporated. Thus, many in the movement have insisted that philosophy alone no longer made you a true movement member. Buying into a harsher tone and an “only my way” legislative strategy became added features and a number of members of congress, with conservative records, were challenged in primaries for not buying into the new tone and legislative strategy expectations. For too many of us, conventional problem solving went from being a virtue to a character weakness.

By 2014, social media, conservative radio superstars and many conservative organizations began promoting the ideal profile of a leader: a combative, confrontational and provocative outsider who would come to Washington, D.C. to shake things up. Clearly our activists have been preconditioned to support candidates who best personify these personality characteristics.

To be fair, a campaign is a contest, the debates are the first stage of separating winners and losers. Candidates matter. And their perceived performances during the first two debates have ranked the candidates currently in 1-2-3 places.

At this point it is appropriate to ask ourselves: have we preconditioned the majority conservative audience to judge the candidates based largely on tone and style? Do we bear any responsibility for downgrading the importance of substance and conservative values in the selection of a favored candidate? Are we, willingly or not, driving the outcome?

My opinion is that the current primary contest leaders have probably performed best in the debates based on their own capabilities with an assistance from the movement preconditioning of our base on tone expectations. Have they earned this ranking if the true measure of support should be based on who will make the best conservative leader of the free world and commander in chief? I don’t believe so.

All leaders of the movement should begin the process of coalescing, within their own organizations, and begin the serious process of identifying true conservative candidates based, significantly, on their specific conservative solutions to the major challenges facing the country today. Once that’s been accomplished let’s educate our members, activists and the country at large

Our base will determine on their own, who they feel can best lead our nation, but we should assume the responsibility of giving them clarity, advise and encouragement of who does — and doesn’t — fit the criteria of being an acceptable conservative candidate

Al Cardenas is a partner in the law firm of Squire Patton Boggs and is the former chairman of the American Conservative Union.

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