A Love/Hate Relationship With CPAC

Derek Hunter
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Posted: Mar 09, 2014 12:01 AM
A Love/Hate Relationship With CPAC

It’s over. The 50th Annual Conservative Political Action Conference has ended, and it was everything I’d hoped and feared it would be. Once again, it wasn’t far from being great. I just wish it were.

I look forward to it every year, and hate it while it’s happening. I’ve never thought much about why before, but this year, it hit me. It’s an opportunity that far too often is wasted.

I’m a cynical person, always have been. So while that may be a part of this, it only clouds my attitude, not my thoughts.

CPAC brings together thousands of conservatives from across the country and around the world, which is important. They’re all engaged or interested in politics to one degree or another, but they’re all underserved by CPAC, and they underserve each other.

We’re all there for our own reasons – the engaged attendees, the speakers, the elected officials, the pundits – and some of it has to do with egos. And this leads many of the biggest stars to insulate themselves from the general audience either by having staff run interference for them or by never entering areas where they could interact with actual attendees.

This is understandable to a certain extent – they’re busy people, especially the politicians. But CPAC doesn’t sneak up on anyone. If they truly wanted to take the time to speak with real activists and college kids who, at least for a weekend, view themselves as future leaders, they could do so in heartbeat. But they don’t.

Most members of Congress – be they ballroom speakers or just there to hit radio row – blow through CPAC, do their business and leave. They may do a book signing or a VIP meet-and-greet. But aside from some glad-handing as they walk the halls, they don’t often take the time to engage the real people who’ve traveled long distances and spent a lot of money to be there. For most attendees a quick selfie with someone they admire is enough, especially in this social media-obsessed culture where it didn’t happen if you didn’t tweet a picture of it. But it doesn’t move the ball.

It’s getting harder and harder to go to CPAC and be inspired. There are stirring speeches and red meat flung from the stage to a hungry crowd. But it makes little difference anymore. Maybe it’s because I’ve heard it all before, sometimes from the same people. But it just didn’t resonate.

There was no call to arms, no call to action, just fiery speeches that were a mile-wide and an inch deep. To those of us who work in politics, it was boring; to those who don’t, it was empty calories.

I’ve complained about this for some time and fear I will have to continue to complain about it for a while longer – there simply is nothing approaching a bold vision coming from conservatives, libertarians or Republicans right now. There’s only a theme: “Democrats suck, we’re not Democrats, let’s get rid of Democrats! Vote Republican!”

There always will be some politicians who have to play it safe, and I understand that. But nobody now is taking the risk of offering a sweeping vision of the future. Nothing said from the stage will change anyone’s mind. No one hurt themselves with their speeches or lost supporters, but none won any either. The suspected 2016 candidates played it as safe as Nerf baseball.

The non-politicians aren’t much better.

CPAC draws all kinds of narcissists from the conservative movement’s past. People who do matter, who are making a difference and will take the time to attend and engage people are increasingly few and far between. Far more common are the aging, alcoholic has-beens who loiter on radio row hoping to be grabbed for a last-minute interview so passers-by will think they matter again pimping books nobody wants to read, or those still milking every last ounce of having been the Deputy Assistant Undersecretary of Taking the Trash Out for the last two weeks of the Reagan administration.

They’re there to be seen, to feed their egos, to sell themselves, to have drinks bought for them, and to feel important. What they aren’t there to do is make a difference, to educate and inspire anyone. They “peacock” around hoping to be recognized by anyone so they can claim surprise and fake humility if someone does.

What none of this does is advance the cause.

This is not all CPAC’s fault. It’s natural for parasites and politicians to act this way when a group gathers. But what CPAC lacks is a genuine opportunity for attendees to participate, to question, to speak. Aside from a few questions here and there, the information flow was a one-way street. People did get information, but there was no way to ensure they could message it themselves. And if CPAC should be anything it should be an annual jumping off point that allows attendees to imbibe information and disseminate it to the people they know back home. Spending three days being talked to, rather than engaged with, is not the most effective use of energy.

CPAC would be better served by less “star power” from the stage (it needs some) and more engagement with the audience. How to message, how not to, facts, figures, history. If CPAC isn’t empowering every attendee to go home fully armed with information to educate others and an understanding and strategy on how and when to do it, it’s spinning its wheels.

Conservatives don’t lose because progressives have better ideas. They lose because they are terrible at conveying those ideas. Progressives couch their failed ideas in conservative language, they lie to people; CPAC should be the hub for spreading the antidote to those lies. It’s not.

Polling shows the American public leans to the right on nearly every major issue, but far more people vote to the left. The media is never going to expose this disconnect, individuals have to. CPAC brings together an army of people who can do just that, to spread the truth like a cold on a plane, but it only arms them with some of the tools to do the job.

A bullet and a gun are not very useful separately, but together they have changed the world. CPAC needs to retool and refocus to fully arm attendees with the information they need and the knowledge of how to use it so they can change the world too. If done properly, their next 50 years will more successful than the last 50 have been. If they don’t, the next 50 years will be an Atkins diet of red meat from the stage and electoral losses come November.