Picture it: Arlington, Va., 2002. It’s my first CPAC, and it’s pretty much the same as most of the CPAC’s before it, based on what I could gather. There’s a slate of speakers and panel discussions, but I spend most of my time in exhibit hall, working the table for my then-employer, the Leadership Institute. Most of the attendees are college students, and a fair amount from my territory in the Northeast, so I see plenty of people I know and do business with. My colleagues at LI, who generally work with non-college students, grouse that CPAC is a waste of their time.
On Friday, I crashed CPAC. There were slates of speakers and panels, but also breakout sessions, receptions in hotel suites for people pushing products, and a lot more adults in massive conference center which housed the conference. (I know college students are technically adults, but you know what I mean.) The speeches, once the fodder for CSPAN’s early morning programming, are now covered live and the political press has been paying astute attention.
The conference which was once a trade association for the conservative movement has grown into… well, pretty much the same thing with more people and more media coverage.
It’s become more notorious in recent years for who isn’t there than for who is, and liberal blogger-activists show up with their pocket cameras trying to be the next Twitter star. Republican consultants – including both establishment Republican consultants and the Republican consultants who bash establishment Republican consultants – lurk in the wings trying to drum up business. (That was my role on Friday.) Rarely is anything of substance said.
This may sound like a criticism of CPAC, but it sure isn’t. Political activists of any stripe care about something that very few other people really care about. That’s why online communities like Facebook and Twitter were so readily adopted by politicos. There’s a real value in seeing and meeting people face-to-face who are mostly like minded and exchanging ideas. There’s a value in hearing rah-rah speeches about your cause that reaffirm your commitment, especially since most not-political folks will probably think you ought to be committed.
There weren’t major policy discussions. There was a fair amount of introspection on campaign tactics, but nothing groundbreaking that hasn’t been said before. Some people in the audiences or walking around exhibit hall probably said stupid or silly things, but the people up on stage kept it pretty vanilla. It’s a great and fun networking opportunity if you are in center-right politics, but precious little more than that.
Let’s not bill CPAC as a ComiCon for the conservative movement, which is what most media outlets seem to want. The attention paid to the event doesn’t merit its importance. Those who make their food money covering politics ought to know that.
Michael Turk had a great post on the center-right’s tech/data gap yesterday – but the best part was where he wrote it, in the American Spectator.
Spoiler alert: Turk warned that investing in new technology is not enough, that Republicans need smart people thinking about human behavior and voting patterns as well. Good call: It’s not enough to figure out how people are interacting with a campaign, since most people in their right mind run away from political communication. There’s an academic component in figuring out how to reach these people and keep them from running. (Unless you use glue traps, of course, but there’s some questionable legality there.)
Ok, the right needs thinkers. Where do they come from? Political parties are good for resources, but not always innovation. Remember that while much of the Obama infrastructure has been bequeathed unto the Democrat National Committee, it was the Obama campaign that built all the new toys. Plus, if the eggheads don’t show immediate dividends, Republican candidates will wonder why the national party money that could be helping them win air wars is being spent to pay Lewis Skolnick.
The best spot for a bunch of data nerds is somewhere in the non-profit universe – whether it’s with an educational foundation like Heritage, an activist group like Americans for Prosperity or FreedomWorks, or a super PAC like American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS/Conservative Victory/Crossroads: The Next Generation. With no donation limits, these groups can make a much better case to the big-ticket donors they’ll need to get the ball rolling. Since the checks can be bigger, it’ll take fewer of them.
Conservative movement non-profits could be better positioned to start the process. That makes The American Spectator a pretty good place to raise the issue.
Somehow, some way, the political universe will have to come to grips with the mind-melting revelation that Jonathan Krohn is no longer a conservative wunderkind. With a slow news week n Your Nation’s Capital, this non-story has been getting more digital ink than it’s worth.
Yes, I recognize the irony in that statement, but hear me out. I’m not kvetching because it’s getting too much attention.
The national conservative leaders invited this story years ago, when they treated Krohn like the second coming of Bill Buckley, a thirteen-year-old in the temple of CPAC, arguing as equals with the elders of the movement. By propping him up they created a sideshow, rather than provoking thought with a speech on fiscal policy or government regulation.
Then again, those speeches don’t make it onto YouTube – and when they do, no one watches. So out comes Krohn, the Boy Wonder of the Right, to be a fun and kitschy carnival attraction. But like any thinking adolescent, Krohn had (and likely still has) a long way to go on his own philosophical journey.
If you are looking to develop a movement leader, he or she would probably be better off listening at CPAC rather than talking. Krohn himself realizes the exercise was a sham:
I mean, come on, I was between 13 and 14 when I was regurgitating these talking points! What does a kid who has never paid a tax bring to the table in a conversation about the burden of taxes? What does a healthy child know about people who can’t afford healthcare because of preexisting conditions? No matter how intelligent a person might be, certain political issues require life experience; they’re much more complicated than the black and white frames imposed by partisan America.
More than likely, there are folks on the left salivating over the opportunity to use him as a prop just the same as the right did years ago. Whether the left or the right hand is grinding the organ, they both want the monkey to dance.
That’s not really fair to the monkey, though. By using a teen as a figurehead, a political movement may score short-term points, but it sure doesn’t help the kid at all – and it isn’t the most dependable basket to drop your eggs in, either.
A thoughtful E.J. Dionne editorial this weekend lauds Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Obviously, that’s nothing new – outside of Klansmen and contrarians, there aren’t a lot of people writing anti-MLK op eds. What’s striking about Dionne’s piece is that it points out King’s radicalism:
This focus on calling out injustice — pointedly, heatedly, sometimes angrily — is what the people of King’s time, friend and foe alike, heard. It made many moderates (and so-called moderates) decidedly uncomfortable.
Anyone tempted to sanitize King into a go-along sort of guy should read his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” from April 1963. It’s a sharp rebuke to a group of white ministers who criticized him as an outsider causing trouble and wanted him to back off his militancy… And recall King’s response to being accused of extremism. Though “initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist,” he wrote, “as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.” Jesus, he said, was called “an extremist for love,” and Amos “an extremist for justice.” The issue was: “Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
For a shorter version of that last quote, thumb over to Barry Goldwater‘s page in Bartlett’s: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
In fact, Dionne’s characterization of King invites comparison to the coverage of the movement for smaller government. (To his credit, Dionne has shown he recognizes this parallel to a degree; he’s one of the few left-leaning columnists able to discern the tea party from Republican politics.)
It deserves mentioning that there are plenty of differences: Tea party rallies aren’t being broken up with fire hoses, rubber (or real) bullets, tear gas, or the releasing of any hounds. King and his allies risked life and limb to make a stand for their big idea.
But they did have that big idea, and believed in it so much that compromise was unacceptable. People were either equal, or they weren’t; they were either allowed to attend the same schools and drink from the same water fountains, or they weren’t.
With that in mind, let’s look at our policy landscape here in 2011. There’s a snowballing debt thanks to a governing culture that allows government to spend lavishly to help build a society and direct an economy. The debt puts at risk the stability of our currency and by extension things like houses and other long-term investments. More important, the services financed by that debt are generally sub-par and fail to accomplish intended goals.
Either that governing culture changes – reigning in spending, allowing people to make their own decisions about health care and retirement, and eliminating waste – or it doesn’t.
The casualties of this movement include moderate and Washington-centric politicians – such as Mike Castle and Bob Bennett in 2010. It makes “moderates and so-called moderates” (to borrow Dionne’s term) like Sen. Orrin Hatch uncomfortable.
But if you believe strongly that the government was biting off more than it could chew to deliver failing policies, and that the promises of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and other public assistance programs are a bad check which will be sent back marked “insufficient funds,” you should be fighting. And supposed allies who favor a “wait-and-see” approach while continuing to conduct the business of government the same way it has been conducted for 80 years aren’t really allies.
That isn’t “extremism,” it’s political advocacy – and as observers from King to Dionne have understood, it’s how policy making works.
A strong and close second-place finish at the Ames Straw poll for Ron Paul ignited almost no media coverage whatsoever – until some folks realized that Paul wasn’t getting any media coverage, which then became the story. It’s one thing for Paul supporters to air their grievances about being ignored, but in a rare moment of astute political insight, even the Daily Show called out the media’s Paul-sized blind spot.
Charles Krauthammer had a valid answer: Paul will not be President. He will not be as successful when the straw polls give way to caucuses, and he will do worse yet when the decisions come from the ballot box. For a media covering horse race politics, giving serious ink to Ron Paul is like giving ink to Mr. Ed – he’s interesting, but he ain’t beating Secretariat, or any other horse. On the other hand, while Tim Carney admits that Paul is a bad candidate, he points out that the Congressman has been consistently proven correct in his assessment of domestic and foreign policy over several years. Stewart quips that Paul planted the small government seeds that germinated into today’s grassroots tea party movement.
Carney and Stewart are correct. The real issue is a political press that doesn’t understand politics beyond the tally of votes in the second week in November. The small government ethos that inspired the tea party to take out incumbents in 2010 has been brewing since late in the first term of George W. Bush, when the Republican party was entrenched in the legislative and executive but without a clear governing vision. Paul was an early banner carrier for that philosophy, and in many way is the heart and soul of the current Republican party. As he chugs along with single-digit polling numbers, other candidates have been and will be elected with Paul’s ideas.
Many political mini-movements see their standard-bearers run into electoral machine gun fire early on. Remember that in 2004, Howard Dean crystallized the Democratic left but failed to win a single primary or caucus (except for his home state of Vermont, and that came after he had dropped out of the race). By 2006, Democrat activists were dumping off Joe Lieberman in a primary and in 2008 they put a charismatic leader in the White House – bit it was Dean in 2004 who lit the fire. There are winning candidates, and there are important candidates; the two are not always the same.
This Wednesday, August 10 I’ll be speaking on “Building Your Winning Coalition” for the Leadership Institute’s LI Live Lecture – part of a free online training series they’ve been offering for conservative activists. If you aren’t celebrating a birthday that day (as both my brother and my father-in-law are) feel free to log on.
Kevin Drum at Mother Jones has a great call to arms for anyone – left or right – who is dissatisfied with the debt deal:
Public opinion is everything. Ronald Reagan was successful because public opinion supported him: he wanted to cut taxes and raise defense spending and so did big chunks of the public. He was leading in a direction that they already wanted to go.
But no matter how many times we try to kid ourselves with one poll result or another, liberals just don’t have that advantage. The public is mostly in favor of raising taxes on the rich — though I suspect its support is pretty soft — but on the bigger issues they mostly aren’t on our side. They think deficits are bad, they don’t trust Keynesian economics, they don’t want a higher IRS bill (who does, after all?), and they believe the federal government is spending too much on stuff they don’t really understand. Conservatives have just flat out won this debate in recent decades, and until that changes we’re not going to be able to make much progress.
Drum has a sizable audience: plenty of conservatives are upset with the way the deal shook out and wouldn’t chalk it up as a wind, just as many liberals and leftists would probably share Drum’s dour assessment.
The problem for either side is indeed public opinion. There are certain policy positions you can and can’t “sell” to the public at large. The Mackinac Center, a Michigan-based free market think tank, calls it the Overton Policy Window: for every range of possible outcomes for public policy issues, there are a subset which the public is willing to accept at a given time (or, more accurately, what politicians feel the public is willing to accept).
Drum is really talking about the need to move the Overton window in order to win political battles. That’s a good way to keep activists motivated after a legislative battle that ends with so much dissatisfaction and compromise.
It’s also something good to keep in mind to those addressing Tea Party activists in the coming months. For example, I spoke to a conservative columnist the other day who bemoaned the fact that while there are plenty of inside-the-beltway organizations eager to use the grassroots muscle of the tea partiers to advance an agenda, there are few telling them that a compromise might be, politically, the best thing that gets passed. He was technically right about the need for real leaders to provide more a constructive focus for passionate advocates. That type of communications will always be doomed, though, unless it’s accompanied by a roadmap to better outcomes in the future. People don’t want their leaders to tell them what can’t be done; they want leaders ready to change the world – if not today, then tomorrow.
As both Republican and Democrat leaders look to keep their respective bases motivated, it will be important to keep this in mind when discussing the recent debt deal. Instead of portraying the compromise as a victory, each side must discuss the debt issue in terms of reframing the policy window.
President Obama is winning the majority of the American people with his rhetoric on the debt ceiling crisis. But polls also show that he’s losing some support among key demographics – namely liberal and black voters, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll reported by Politico.
If you’re looking for clues, stop right here Sherlock: the unemployment rate for black men is twice that of white men. Economic policies intended to elevate the less fortunate are failing, leaving certain demographics behind more than others.
The case for smaller government and personal empowerment has never been more clear. And the polls that show minority voters increasingly distrustful of the President demonstrate that, at least on some level, voters are also in a position to reject the big-government promises they have been sold for generations.
But only if the case is made to those voters, directly and on a person-to-person basis.
With the 2012 elections over a year away, it’s a good time for campaign organizations, party committees, and non-profits on the right to begin trying to make inroads into communities where they haven’t had much success. It may take the form of voter registration or straight party recruitment efforts.
Imagine if a candidate like Michelle Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, or Mitt Romney took the initiative to sat down with community leaders of black and/or Hispanic groups the way Herman Cain is doing with Muslim groups. It would likely be even more productive, since Cain is reaching out only after he seriously frayed his relations with that community. The same outreach by key leaders of the conservative movement would be equally valuable.
It will still be low-yield; the cost per registrant will be high in the early going. That’s the price of ignoring those communities for so long. This wouldn’t be about volumes of new party voters, though. Unlike many of the failing government programs that have been used to buy these communities’ votes in the past decades, this would be a legitimate investment in the future.