As the tea parties have uniformly expressed, they have no desire to be co-opted; but it is obvious that they feel ignored by both political parties. Many elected GOP officials, such as Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, have been working diligently to bring core conservative principles back into the fabric of the party.
It would seem, though, that the official Republican Party apparatus would need to take every opportunity to engage tea partiers and other disaffected conservatives. Arizona GOP Chairman Randy Pullen and California GOP Chairman Ron Nehring were there, actively interacting with the CPAC attendees—but no other state chairmen were. David Norcross of New Jersey, who is a solid conservative, was the only other national committee member even there.
The answer for the tea party movement isn’t necessarily to anoint a single leader, either. “They have 50-plus leaders; it’s entrepreneurial organization,” explains Anuzis, who ran last year for the RNC chairmanship and has attended CPAC for years. “Their trick is to ask, ‘What do we do to force Republican candidates or any candidates to earn our support?’”
In the coming months, those activists seeking to change the direction of government will face the same challenges as all burgeoning movements. Enthusiasm is aplenty, but what about focus and leadership? Supporters of the failed White House candidacies of Barry Goldwater in 1968 and Ronald Reagan in 1976 ended up remaking the GOP, and then they incorporated the Christian conservatives awakened by Pat Robertson’s presidential bid in 1988.
If the tea partiers doubt the importance of experienced hands steering the ship, they should look at the incredible success of this year’s CPAC. Many things could have spiraled out of control, yet these possible flare-ups ended up as minor blips.
One buzzed-about example came on Friday afternoon when one student “condemned” CPAC for allowing a conservative gay rights group to co-sponsor the conference. After he was booed off the stage, CPAC vice-chairwoman Millie Hallow, one of the most under-appreciated women in Washington, then took the podium and reminded the crowd that CPAC allows for “freedom of opinion.” Normalcy soon returned.
CPAC has actually had the same leadership team in place for several years running. American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene has attended over 30 CPACs, and this was his 26th year as chairman of the event. In addition to defusing a potentially volatile situation, 15-year veteran Hallow also stage-managed the big dinners, both of which went smoothly and ended on time. Lisa DePasquale excelled in her fourth go-around as CPAC Director, building a schedule with broad appeal. CPAC Communications Director Ian Walters was working his 13th CPAC, and somehow (yet again) managed to help generate overall positive press in the mainstream media—no small feat.
Because of the experienced team planning and managing CPAC, the event moved to a bigger hotel to handle its expanded attendance of 10,000, without skipping a beat. And the squabbles inherent to politics were kept at a minimum, while attendees networked furiously and generally enjoyed themselves. All of which could pay enormous dividends this November.
For their sake, let’s hope the tea partiers were taking notes at CPAC.
Joel Mowbray, who got his start with Townhall.com, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.
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