By 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 Today it no longer represents a joyous insurgency but is instead part of the Washington political establishment.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.
Maybe when he speaks, Governor Bush can explain why several years ago he advised the GOP to get over Reagan “nostalgia.” More recently, he made the harebrained claim that Reagan could not now win the nomination because the GOP had become too “rightwing.” I beg your pardon, Jeb, but since Reagan, the GOP has nominated two Bushes, a Dole, a McCain and a Romney – all men considerably to the Left of Ronald Reagan.
Jeb Bush might also explain his call this week for even higher taxes on the American worker.
What might be galling for many conservatives is that the Bushes habitually rebuffed speaking opportunities at CPAC. George H. W. Bush only spoke once as VP and then never came as president. George W. Bush appeared as a private citizen but did not attend as president until 2008, when his approval rating was in the low 20’s and he was desperate for an appreciative audience.
Jeb Bush routinely turned down invitations while governor of Florida. Now, the world of Republicanism and conservatism is filled with hidden agendas and personal animosities and some of this may have factored in to decisions to bypass CPAC. But for moderates, the personal trumps the philosophical. Being invited to join Skull and Bones is about who you know and not what you think.
On the other hand, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell just shoved through the largest tax increase in the history of the Commonwealth, essentially a sop to developers and contractors, and yet he is speaking at a Ralph Reed-sponsored event at CPAC. So what makes N.J. Governor Chris Christie so special that he is not invited this year – but McDonnell is?
Indeed, a better case can be made for Christie speaking at CPAC than can be made for Jeb Bush. Then again, a better case can be made for Christie speaking at CPAC than Mitt Romney. Christie has been far more conservative as governor of New Jersey than Romney was as governor of Massachusetts. But Romney and Bush were invited while Christie was not.
Christie, wisely, did not take the bait the other day when asked about the CPAC snub and, with class, simply sloughed it off.
Is it that Christie is not a member of the Republican establishment, that he is his own man, refusing to pay tribute to the insiders?
Some of the conservative movement and all of the Republican Party have lost its intellectual moorings. Some think Bushism is conservatism. Some think worshipping the Pentagon is conservatism. Some think invading Nova Scotia is conservatism. Some think whatever they hear on some cable show is conservatism.
Another member of the Bush clan, speechwriter Michael Gerson, has also advised the GOP to get over Reagan “nostalgia,” and yet a true son of Reaganism, Mark Levin, has not been invited to speak at CPAC. The suspicion among many is Levin has been tough on the GOP establishment and so he too is being punished.
Ironically, the answer to what ails American conservatism and the Republican Party might be found in a speech Reagan gave at CPAC in 1977, when the Republican Party was again in the wilderness, even as conservative ideas were ascending.
Reagan rejected the “country club … corporate board room” Republicanism of Bushism and others. “Our party must be the party of the individual … Each one of us can maintain his dignity and his identity in an increasingly complex, centralized society.”
He continued: “Extreme taxation, excessive controls, oppressive government … frustrated minorities, and forgotten Americans are not the products of free enterprise. They are the residue of centralized bureaucracy, of government by a self-anointed elite.” Even 36 years later, the Gipper’s words ring true. This is not nostalgia – it is wisdom.
Federalist #48 warned against the “encroaching nature” of government but presumably Mr. Gerson and Mr. Bush would dismiss any reverence for Hamilton, Jay or Madison as misplaced “nostalgia.”
The future of American conservatism lies in the past. It’s not nostalgic to be alarmed about unwarranted concentrations of power. This fight is as old as time and as relevant as today.
In the final analysis, as a culture and a governing philosophy, Bushism is more akin to Obamaism than it is to Reaganism.
Craig Shirley is the president of the President of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs and the author of two books on the 40th president, Reagan’s Revolution and Rendezvous with Destiny.