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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

What To Look For At the CPAC Meeting

This item is cross-posted from Progressive Fix.
Tomorrow every wingnut’s attention will be on Washington, where the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) begins its annual meeting and vetting session for Republican presidential candidates. The three-day affair will end with a straw poll of attendees that becomes, for better or worse, a data point in the nominating process (last year’s straw poll was sort of ruined, according to most accounts, when Ron Paul’s college-aged supporters packed the room and won it for him). The significance of the event has probably been increased by the late-developing presidential field; this really does represent, as Michael Shear of the New York Times put it yesterday, the “starter’s pistol” for the 2012 cycle.
There’s always some maneuvering about who shows up and doesn’t show up, and who’s behind the scenes manipulating things, at CPAC meetings. But this year is kind of special in that there has been a sustained and ostensibly ideological effort to boycott the event from the right. It’s been organized by social conservatives who are unhappy that a gay conservative group–known as GOProud, which is distinct from the better-known Log Cabin Republicans in that it is more explicitly conservative on issues other than GLBT rights–has been allowed to become one of the meeting’s many sponsors.
More generally, elements of the Christian Right may be using this brouhaha to send a message that they will not accept subordination to those in the conservative movement who demand an exclusive focus on fiscal issues. Indeed, in addition to the GOProud’s inclusion, one of the grievances against CPAC among social conservatives is the very fact that Mitch Daniels has been given a featured speaking slot, presumably as a possible 2012 presidential candidate. Daniels has enraged the Cultural Right by calling for a “truce” in the culture wars, which from their point of view means a continuation of the GOP’s longstanding refusal to go beyond lip service on issues like abortion, gay rights and church-state separation.
There’s a secondary behind-the-scenes issue with CPAC that’s drawn less attention outside the fever swamps of right-wing internecine warfare: anger among Islamophobes at the inclusion of a group called Muslims for America, which noted neoconservative agitator Frank Gaffney has attacked as a front for the Muslim Brotherhood. This brouhaha in turn reflects long-standing hostility among some conservatives to the efforts of anti-tax commissar Grover Norquist, long a fixture at CPAC meetings, to legitimize Muslim-American organizations and convince Republicans to pursue Muslim voters.
Finally, some conservatives have always had issues with CPAC due to concerns over the alleged financial irregularities of David Keene, long-time head of the American Conservative Union, the primary sponsor of the event. It’s often hard to untangle the personal from the ideological in these disputes, but they both definitely exist.
In any event, eight significant conservative organizations have joined the boycott of this year’s CPAC conference, the most prominent being the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council. But the boycott hasn’t had much of an effect on the would-be presidents invited to speak. According to Slate‘s Dave Weigel, no-shows by Sen. Jim DeMint and House Republican Study Committee chairman Jim Jordan may be partially attributable to sympathy for the boycott, and/or for the complaints of social conservatives that their agenda is being deep-sixed.
It’s also possible that the most notable no-shows, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, are being influenced by it; it’s hard to say, though in an interview with Christian Right journalist David Brody, Palin seemed to be saying in her elliptical manner that she had no problem with GOProud’s inclusion in the conference. Palin has now found reason to skip four CPACs in a row, and some of her detractors say she simply does not want to speak without a hefty fee and an unchallenged spotlight.
Others have interpreted Huckabee’s and Palin’s decision to take a pass as indicating they really aren’t running for president in 2012. Influential Iowa Republican activist Craig Robinson took this tack in ranking the presidential candidates’ potential appeal in his state’s pivotal caucuses, refusing to list Huckabee and Palin as members of the potential field.
So background noise aside, what should astute observers look for at CPAC, particularly in the cattle-call series of “featured speeches” that begin with Michele Bachmann tomorrow and conclude with fiery Tea Party congressman Alan West of Florida on Saturday? Obviously the straw poll results–and the frantic efforts of the winner and the losers to spin them–will be of interest. The speeches may get tedious to non-conservatives; this is not a venue for truth-telling challenges to conservative shibboleths, and the smell of red meat will be overpowering. You can count on metronomic shout-outs to the power and the glory of the Tea Party Movement, and vast quantities of Obama-bashing.
Since no one can rival Michele Bachmann in appealing to the conservative id, I’d keep an eye on her speech, particularly since she’s playing with the idea of running for president (probably if Palin does not run), and could be formidable in Iowa. Similarly, a much longer long-shot for the presidency, John Bolton, could use his Saturday address to play off the news from Egypt and challenge both the administration and his fellow-conservatives to treat the disturbances in the Middle East as an Islamist threat to U.S. security.
But the most interesting speeches may be from presidential wannabes not known for their ability to get conservative crowds growling and roaring. Tim Pawlenty, for example, is putting together a credible Iowa campaign and seems to be every Republican’s second choice, but desperately needs to show he can fire up the troops. Mitt Romney (who won the CPAC straw poll at this point in the 2008 cycle) needs to recapture the mojo that made him the “true conservative” candidate four years ago, particularly now that he’s being generally depicted as representing what’s left of the moderate tradition in the GOP. Rick Santorum is a good bet to bring the grievances of the Christian Right into the open. Haley Barbour could really use a speech branding himself as something other than a former tobacco lobbyist who can raise large stacks of cash when he isn’t displaying an unfortunate nostalgia for the Old South.
It should be a good show, and an illustration of the hard-core Right’s emergence from the sidelines of Republican politics into the very center of power and attention.

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