Missing the Point About CPAC

The media's horse race coverage distracts from CPAC's true purpose.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., left, honored Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., with a gun Thursday, March 6, 2014, at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

CPAC brings together singular voices to discuss conservative values.

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Forty-one years ago, before it was cool to be a conservative, many of the nation’s top thought leaders met to discuss the future of the movement born out of the ashes of Barry Goldwater’s failed 1964 run for the presidency. Those intellectuals and activists, who took on the established GOP order, tapped into ideas that captured the hearts of a majority of Americans for the next 40 years. Not even the genius of William F. Buckley, one of our founding members, could have dreamed of what that original gathering has become.

Since 1973, the American Conservative Union has hosted the Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC, and though our 41st annual conservative family reunion has been adjourned, politicos are still digesting what it all means. 

Often, the story is the horse race – who’s up, who’s down, who’s in and who’s out – but as far as this chairman is concerned, the long-standing purpose of CPAC is often overlooked by the throngs of media sent to cover the event.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Yes, potential future presidential contenders were on display. And while each speaker shared their versions of conservatism, each potential contender’s style, emphasis, and approach was markedly different. We will have no shortage of positions to compare and contrast in the 2016 presidential primary.

But the horse race does not provide the main takeaway from this year’s CPAC.

Our panel topics reflected the spectrum of evolving positions on some of the most contentious issues since last year’s CPAC. Pro-Patriot Act defense hawks duked it out with Fourth Amendment civil libertarians over whether Edward Snowden is a traitor or a hero and wrestled with whether the idea of a guaranteed right to privacy exists and if it does, does it have an expiration date.

[Read columnist Robert Schlesinger on Paul Ryan's CPAC appearance.]

In the imperial age of Obama’s decision to govern by executive orders, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., George Will and former NRA President David Keene discussed whether the Congress even matters any more. We featured the leading plaintiffs and victims who detailed the extent to which the IRS has now criminalized free speech.

And our Blogger of the Year (Townhall’s Mary Katharine Ham) debated another millennial on the legalization of marijuana -- her pro-legalization opinion was endorsed by 41 percent of CPAC’s attendees this year.

But that, too, is not the main story. I would submit that the point of CPAC, from its earliest days, to the present, is this: While media like to write about the perceived conflicts within the conservative movement at this point in its history – it’s an easy story to write -- the American Conservative Union and CPAC have always sought to exemplify one of America’s founding mottos, “E Pluribus Unum”  – out of many, one. 

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

From a chorus of many voices that make up the diverse group we call conservatives, we come together at CPAC with a single purpose: To advance the traditional values of liberty, personal responsibility, constitutional rights, traditional values and a strong national defense. How we decide to do that is derived from the spirited debate we host in which singular and persuasive voices stand out.

This is the proud tradition that our three day conference has created for hundreds of thousands of conservative activists over 41 years. Vigorous and civil debate has long been the hallmark of CPAC. We relish intellectually challenging each other. Unlike the left, conservatives have never demanded lockstep intellectual orthodoxy. Additionally, conservatives do not shirk from a healthy debate and are not inclined to remove any topic from debate. To do this, conservatives believe, would run counter to what it means to be an American.

The one thing that everyone at this year’s conference agreed upon was that conservative solutions can and will provide the change we desperately need.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

We are entwined in the halting start to Obamacare – which, as key CPAC panels revealed, seems to promise little more than staggering costs as average Americans lose their health insurance and trusted family doctors. Fellow conservatives from Europe and Canada joined us at CPAC to warn us against repeating their homeland’s mistakes in this field. Conservatives can help save the American economy from the ills of Obamacare, but only if we learn from our European counterparts and arm American conservatives with the information they need to fight that fight in their neighborhoods and communities when they return home. 

On foreign policy, an issue where conservatives rarely agree, CPAC believes that what we do agree on is that it’s often better to be feared than respected. President Obama has managed to deny America both. Our friends can no longer count on us and our enemies are counting on us to stay out of their way. The reasonable way to move forward is to allow a healthy and vigorous debate about what is a conservative foreign policy in a post 9/11, post-Iraq world. Conservatives are not afraid to listen to different positions before we adopt our own. 

In our neighborhoods at home, CPAC taught us the lesson that more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens actually leads to less crime on our streets.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

And the American Conservative Union, in this, our 50th anniversary year, having come a long way from the days of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, will continue to debate, define and help deliver innovative conservative policy approaches that take into account the many voices that exists in the continually growing intellectual movement.

These are the lessons and stories that are often underreported at the conclusion of every CPAC, and given the state of our 24-hour-a-day news cycle lifestyle, I don’t expect that aspect of our current landscape to change anytime soon.

What I am more certain of, as we look back on our recently-concluded conservative family reunion, is that we will have succeeded in passing on our family traditions with respect, hope, optimism and clarity.