Craig Shirley

John McCain’s presidential campaign manager from four years ago, Steve Schmidt, has compared the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to the “Star Wars bar scene.”

Reflecting on the dysfunctional 2008 freak show that passed for a campaign against Barack Obama, Mr. Schmidt would know.

The conference’s problem, for many longtime participants, is not the diversity and raucous freedom one might expect to find in a social club on an alien planet. The quandary is that what is now the largest gathering of conservative activists in the nation has wandered far from its original intent, which was a rejection of the status quo.

In the old days, the event represented the best intellectual revolutionary elements of the conservative movement. Panel after panel would argue and debate issues such as abortion, foreign aid, spending policies and about what the true Holy Grail of conservatism entailed – defending institutions or individuals?

The conference was always separate and apart from the GOP establishment, even in the Reagan years. Today it no longer represents a joyous insurgency but is instead part of the Washington political establishment.

Indeed, CPAC was as much about taking on the GOP statists as anything.

In an earlier iteration, it would have been unthinkable to have the chairman of the Republican National Committee speak at CPAC. Now it is an entitlement, no matter what the ideology is of the party chairman.

I began attending CPAC in the 1970s, worked on it in the 1980s and appeared on many of its panels during the 1990s. (In full disclosure, my office inquired about a Reagan panel at CPAC this year, but alas, there is no Reagan panel.)

The highlight was the appearance of Ronald Wilson Reagan, who spoke at every CPAC from 1973 to 1988 (except for 1976 and 1980, when he sent a message while campaigning in the New Hampshire primary).

Yes, insider establishmentarians made fun of Reagan in those days. But without Reagan, there would be no CPAC and without CPAC, there might be no Reagan. The annual dinner at CPAC was even named after Reagan – and over the years, Reaganites and conservatives were featured speakers.

Now the anti-Reagan establishment clamors to attend CPAC. This year, CPAC organizers have chosen as a featured speaker former governor Jeb Bush – whose family has made a career of opposing or attacking the true meaning of Reaganism. A Bush speaking at the Reagan dinner is for True Believers mind-boggling.

Craig Shirley

Craig Shirley is a Reagan biographer, a presidential historian and Chairman of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs. His firm is assisting Scott Walker’s presidential campaign.