- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, spoke with The Washington Times on the eve of this weekend’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference. The ACU sponsors the event.

Question: What does conservatism mean to you?

Answer: In the modern American political context, it is a movement that is a reaction to the incredible growth of our government, the weakening of constitutional protections and the failure to grasp the threats that America faces overseas.

Q: Many are saying Donald Trump is not a true conservative. Where and how does he fit into the movement?

A: There is a very strong backlash from the Washington, D.C. area ZIP codes on Donald Trump. Never before have I seen such a disconnect between important Republican insiders and members of the media who live in the DC/New York areas and the rest of the country.

What intellectuals and writers and operatives inside the bubble see is a lot of weaknesses and a lot of uncertainty on constitutional principles. But what I have found, in the travel I’ve done around the country throughout the year, is the opposite. From regular voters, from business owners, from moms and dads — they see someone who they don’t exactly know where he is on every issue and sometimes he says things that are disconcerting to them. But it seems like the general thrust of it is he represents a brand new way to think about how you would pick a nominee for the Republican Party and how that nominee actually would govern. …

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It’s a brand new model, it’s outside the box. And it matches the times because voters are disgusted, disillusioned with the way things are going in the Obama era. Republicans lose constantly and they don’t think it’s good for America. Q: What would you define today as the three legs of conservatism? Is it the same as it was in the years of Reagan or is it being redefined?

A: Things have changed in terms of the priority issues, but I think it’s the same legs: It is concern about culture and our families, the next generation, our values. It is concern about our national security and projecting American values abroad. And it is free markets, free trade, fewer regulations. Those continue to be the same three legs of the coalition that Reagan pulled together.

There has been some differences. There’s been a healthy interjection of what the Constitution prescribes in each of these areas. Some conservatives start off by saying the Constitution is my guide. I think that is a great way to approach it, the only weakness is the Constitution is there for both liberals and conservatives. The Constitution then allows us to pass policies within its confines — at least that’s how conservatives use it. Liberals see the Constitution as a stepping point to do whatever they want next. …

The other really important piece of what’s happening is a strong voice of libertarian allies who are so disguised by the size and scope of the government that they think we have to err on the side of making things even smaller and pushing government even further away and outside of our lives as a reaction to this perpetual growth of government’s impact in our lives.

Q: Do you view the Republican Party as fractured? Why or why not? And if so, how can it be repaired?

A: It’s very hard to repair if establishment or more moderate Republicans or more traditional Republicans expect people like Donald Trump to sign a loyalty oath but then the next thing you know, is they’re saying they should get kicked out of the party. It just doesn’t really work that way.

When you join a political party what you’re saying is that “I believe that its process for selecting the nominee is probably better than any other way we can do it.” Not ideal, not perfect, but the best way. So it’s hypocritical for people who demanded Donald Trump to sign an oath to the party to then say they would never support him in return

I will support the person who comes out of the Republican nominating process because it is a binary choice — you either help Hillary Clinton become the next president or you don’t. And if you decide not to vote, you are morally intertwined in the decision to put Hillary Clinton in the White House and you’re morally intertwined with all of the horrible policies she will push from that point forward.

I worry about those folks making those commitments that they won’t support the Republican nominee. That being said, there’s a lot of heated talk that gets said in a campaign, friendships get frayed, tweets get sent that unfortunately can’t get pulled back, sometimes those tweets are accompanied by too many martinis, and so you have to deal with the results of all that. I think that a lot of harsh words that are being spoken now will be taken back.

What I love about it, look at every indicator out there: More Americans are participating in the Republican process, more Americans are watching the Republican process. CPAC will be an example of this. My guess is our attendance records get shattered, our press credential numbers get shattered, the number of people who watch on TV — those records will get shattered. This is a good thing as we go about and try to take our country back.

Q: You’ve been on successful presidential campaigns (George W. Bush), what do you think went wrong with Jeb Bush’s bid this election cycle?

A: The horse leaves the barn one time. I think that the campaign just got started off on the wrong foot. I think he and his team misread the political moment and I don’t know if they figured that out by the time he was getting out.

What would normally work — you know. Working with the other side, trying to find areas of compromise, pushing big policy ideas that the country could accept, not too aggressively and too caustically standing up for your core values — that tone and approach is one that you would’ve deployed a couple of decades ago and it would’ve been successful.

It just didn’t match the moment. The moment was “we want new, we want different, we have tried the old model, we have watched Congressional Republicans lose fights to Barack Obama, we see our country’s economy stagnate, we see our nation’s courts getting in more and more things they shouldn’t be getting involved in.” And that resulted in a Republican electorate that just doesn’t really want to hear from Washington. They don’t want to hear from people who have spent time in Washington and they want a new model.

There’s a movement going around in the country, I think most people just assume it’s Trump-inspired. I actually think there’s a movement going around in the country that Donald Trump was smart enough to get in front of, but I don’t think it’s his movement.

Q: If Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination, what does that mean for Republican majorities in the House and the Senate?

A: It’s too soon to tell. The anti-Trump people will tell you if Trump gets the nomination Republicans are going to lose the Senate and potentially even lose the House, that this will be a watershed moment for the party, and the Republican Party will be split in two and it will never be the same. That’s a theme you hear at cocktail parties in Washington, D.C.

The truth is that all the people who were predicting that are all the very same people who told us that Donald Trump would never break 10 percent in a poll, and then when he did, they said, “oh, this is just a temporary thing.” These are the people who thought that Ted Cruz would never be a major threat in the presidential race because he didn’t have any friends and he was too bombastic.

These are people who have misread the political situation at every single step. So now they say it will be political Armageddon for the Republican Party. I guess what I would say to them: “Take a breath, we all have one vote, we each cast our votes in these primaries, and then we’re going to have a nominee.”

Let’s just see how the country digests the information. There’s a decent chance that because of the political realignment that’s going on and acute Clinton fatigue that no matter who we nominate we could be in a pretty good position. Alarmists should press snooze. If we don’t pull back together we will cede the White House to Bill and Hillary Clinton and I predict within eight months we will be embroiled in another issue or scandal over their ridiculous schemes to make money and keep things private.Q: What’s the most challenging aspect of pulling the CPAC conference together?

A: The most challenging thing has been to rejuvenate the institution financially. We’ve tried very hard to reinvigorate the donor program to get people around the country excited again about supporting the American Conservative Union. We’ve had a really high degree in success in doing that because the institution has a great reputation and a much needed purpose. That purpose is to try to bring Republicans together, Republicans who come from slightly different camps and backgrounds.

The second thing is there’s been a lot of competition in the conservative field now. When ACU was established they were the only organization, since then there are literally hundreds of organizations many of whom are in Washington DC. There’s a real competition of who is going to survive, who is going to compete. As a conservative, we embrace that. We don’t deserve to exist tomorrow because we existed for over 50 years. We are focusing on areas where there are gaps.

As far as the conference itself, the No.1 responsibility is to take these thousands of activists from around the country and hopefully train them and educate them so when they leave they’re better prepared to go to battle with the Left. We take that very seriously. We’re not trying to put on a show, this is not about a conservative circus or filling up your autograph book, it’s about filling up your notepad with notes about issues that are important and steps we need to take.

The most serious challenge? You’re dealing with a lot of conservative egos. A lot of people who they’re used to and deserve to be front and center and to find a way to pull it together respectfully for these four days. And that’s not an easy process. To be quite honest, it’s the part of the process that we’re really glad is coming to an end this week.

Q: Tell our readers a little more about ACU, what the organization is and does when you’re not planning for CPAC?

A: The American Conservative Union was established by William F. Buckley and others to respond to the defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, so it quite literally was pulled together so that conservatives of different stripes libertarians, social conservatives every kind of conservative you can think of would work together so the next time they had a shot at the presidency they would win. In American politics second place is last place it’s nothing. The thinking was we’d actually nominate someone who was a conservative and would win. In the meantime we wanted to make sure that when this person won we had policies ready to go that could be put in place, that there was a practical understanding of the legislation that was needed, the people that should be picked. The early ACU was like an early form of a political organization or of a think-tank or a grassroots advocacy organization.

The ACU was filling a lot of roles because the conservative movement was new and the architecture and infrastructure hadn’t been built yet. Fast-forward 50 years and there’s a lot of architecture. We’ve come from a place where we basically had almost nothing and now we’re in a position where we have a lot of resources, a lot of talented people ensconced in beautiful White buildings.

Now the question of the conservative movement is this: We have great ideas but are we properly transmitting them to voters and activists across the country? I think there is piece there that’s missing that has to be improved. We have great museums to conservative theory and thought but are they getting interjected into the political bloodstream? Are they getting interjected into people’s thoughts into their actions? Ordinary Americans who are working, or raising their kids and are thinking about the more practical things in life, are they understanding what is going on in their country and what they can do to help?

So we view ourselves as a conduit between those intuitions who are very focused on the tones, and the blue books and the studies and try to put them in digestible form so that regular Americans across the country can get it.

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