Organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) have been criticized for not inviting popular Republican Governors Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell as headline speakers at this year's event, as well as excluding gay Republican group GOProud.
Republican operative Steven Schmidt, for example, opined that "This CPAC convention is increasingly the Star Wars bar scene of the conservative movement." (That reference can only be fully appreciated in the context of Obi-Wan Kenobi characterizing the city in which the bar is located as a "wretched hive of scum and villainy.") Most pundits have focused on discussing whether the two governors and GOProud are "conservative enough" to merit invitations. But while their exclusion is absolutely a mistake, public discussion shouldn't be focused on their relative conservatism, but rather on how CPAC's actions threaten the vitality of the conservative movement as a whole.
Al Cardenas, the head of the American Conservative Union, the organization that hosts CPAC, defends the decision to omit Governors Christie and McDonnell from the speaker lineup: "CPAC is like an 'All Star' game for conservatives. Even players that have great careers in baseball don’t make it to the All Star game every year."
The two governors were therefore presumably faulted for deviating from conservative orthodoxy — Christie for praising President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and McDonnell for supporting a transportation deal that raises taxes.
Yet CPAC organizers have nonetheless seen fit to feature Donald Trump and Dick Morris as headline speakers, which, according to Cardenas' logic, makes the nation's most prominent birther and perhaps its worst political prognosticator conservative All Stars.
Furthermore, for the second year in a row, CPAC is denying a booth and a co-sponsorship opportunity to the gay Republican group GOProud. Its previous participation was controversial with conference participants, leading Cardenas to claim the disinvitation stems from their having "crossed the line of appropriate discourse."
Yet CPAC organizers permitted white nationalists like Peter Brimelow and Robert Vandervoot to participate as panelists last year and the year before that. And this year, Judicial Watch is an event sponsor and organization head Tom Fitton is a featured speaker; among many outlandish conspiracy theories, they claim the State Department is actively recruiting Islamic jihadists.
To their credit, some conservatives have been critical of CPAC's actions. The National Review editorial board, for example, observes that giving space to the views of GOProud and Christie "would not amount to an endorsement of them," "[b]ut it could help move the intra-conservative conversation in productive new directions. And that, as we understand it, is what CPAC is supposed to be about."
Meanwhile, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a CPAC co-sponsor, is hosting a panel at the event on attracting gays to the conservative movement that will include GOProud's executive director. CEI communications director Christine Hall notes the think tank is hosting the panel because "we're not in the business of turning away allies."
Ultimately, CPAC's decision to include buffoons like Trump, Morris, and Fitton and exclude allies like GOProud, Christie, and McDonnell severely weakens not only the public image of the conservative movement, but also its competitiveness. (Yes, the excluded are allies; as Ronald Reagan supposedly said, "The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally — not a 20% traitor.")
For a political movement to prosper and grow, it cannot fear open discourse; conservatives should be willing to engage allies, supposed enemies, and almost everyone in between if they are to swell their ranks. Not everyone, of course — no movement should welcome scum and villainy.