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.