CPAC 2015: George Washington ate here

Much of the attention CPAC earned came from the annual straw poll results or sound bites from the candidate speeches. I’ll remember none of that.

I made it to CPAC for exactly one day this year, which was luckily all I needed to meet with my “CPAC friends” – fellow consultants, bloggers, or activists who I tend to bump into once a year, only at CPAC. That day was Friday. Late in the afternoon, I realized I 1) hadn’t eaten a full meal yet and 2) needed to go someplace quiet to get some work done. Off to the National Harbor McDonald’s I went, for a Friday Filet-o-Fish and some time away from CPAC, I thought.

I was only partly right: Soon after sitting down in a booth in the nearly deserted McDonald’s, I spied George Washington walk in. As regular CPAC goers can attest, there’s always a guy there dressed like Washington, so there was no mystery about where he came from.

Some of the other conference goers came in after him and struck up a conversation as they all waited for their respective orders. (I eavesdropped, of course. How often do you get to listen in on a conversation with George Washington? It wasn’t rude, it was history, so back off.)

They had apparently seen him join a group of people who walked out during Jeb Bush’s speech earlier that day. Yes, the Washington impersonator replied, he had participated but hadn’t organized it. Curious, the other attendees asked who he would vote for among the Republican contenders.

“Well,” he replied thoughtfully, “Scott Walker is probably the one I identify with the most. I didn’t finish college, either, you know – though I did receive a certificate as a surveyor from William and Mary.”

Surveyor? Suddenly, I realized: He’s interacting with everyone as if he actually is George Washington. Either this dude is committed to staying in character, or everyone in the McDonald’s is going to end up with the title, “Victim of a Bizarre Murder Spree.”  I’m not sitting in a spot where I could dodge musket fire at that point so I listen up and hope for the best.

President Washington introduces himself to a family sitting two booths over. The daughter, Alexandria (“How lovely,” Washington exclaimed at hearing her name. “They named a city after you, you know!”) had encouraged him to join her, her father, and her siblings. During their conversation the Father of Our Country mentioned that he does do school visits. It’s a bit tough to get him though. He explains: “My website is down but it will be up soon. In the meantime, Dr. Franklin gave me this wind whispering device – you speak into it and it carries your voice into the wind.” President Washington hold up his “wind whispering device,” which is a mobile phone. Ben Franklin understood cell phones but apparently couldn’t figure out GoDaddy.

Washington gets up to leave and runs into some more kids, siblings from another family that happened into this now-historic McDonald’s. Seeing their red hair, he pointed out that both he and his pal Thomas Jefferson had red hair in their younger years. “That means you have revolutionary hair!” he told them.

And just like that, he donned his tri-corner hat and off he went; the great George Washington was spirited away by either the mists of the late afternoon Potomac or a Honda Accord – I didn’t get a great look into the parking lot.

You know what the best part about it was? The kids ate it up! Those red-haired kids bragged to their Dad about having revolutionary hair for the rest of the time they were there, just like Alexandria seemed genuinely excited about interacting with a Founding Father. Even while was chowing down french fries or talking with college-aged CPACers who are obviously messing with him, he refused to admit that he wasn’t George Washington or act like anything was amiss.

In the context of CPAC, the guy walking around like George Washington can be a bit of an embarrassment to the younger, comparatively hipper attendees. This year, I was happy he came – even if it was just for a side trip to McDonald’s.

(Since I know you’re wondering: Yes, some of these interactions were with black people; No, the issue of slavery did not come up.)

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CPAC is bigger than ever – and largely irrelevant

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.

Kids make bad spokespeople

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.

When is boycotting CPAC the smart move?

On Friday, Jim DeMint announced he will boycott CPAC.  He joins a host of conservative organizations – including the Heritage Foundation and the Media Research Center – who have decided not to attend this year’s event and Congressman Jim Jordan, head of the conservative Republican Study Committee in the House.

For an inside the beltway conservative organization, CPAC is a place to be seen by activists – mostly students – coming in from across the country.  It’s a rare chance to be face to face with members, participants or supporters of your organization – people you may only communicate with via email or phone.  And because it’s such a rare chance, it costs money – lots of it.  Beyond the thousands in sponsorship and/or booth rental fees, an organization has to put lots of thought and resources into making their booth stand out.  Giveaway items, multimedia displays, and other amenities cost money – to say nothing of staff time.

It’s not a prohibitive or unwise investment, but it is an investment.

On the other hand, for a group with a limited budget, boycotting CPAC can separate you a bit from the crowd.  Articles and blog posts about your boycott will likely get into the hands of activists who care about your issue.  If you are one of hundreds of booths in CPAC’s main hall, you may not be able to cut through the noise in quite the same way.

For the politicians who don’t go, it’s also a win-win.  For DeMint, who has crafted a brand as a gadfly against Republican leadership, bowing out aligns him against an inside-the-beltway professional conservative movement.  For tea party activists who paint the entire Washington crowd with the same brush, DeMint and Jordan become horses of a different color.

And the reality is that the Washington, DC version of CPAC isn’t nearly as important as it was 20 years ago, before communication between outside the beltway activists became as easy as it is today.  In its first decades of existence, CPAC could have helped set the conservative message for an entire year or election cycle.  For conservative activists, CPAC might be a rare time to hear from Presidential hopefuls early on, before their campaign started in earnest. But this is a different time.  The era of 24/7 news means campaign themes and messages for 2012 might not be set until weeks or months before – after all, who would have predicted in February of 2007 that a late financial crisis would tip the scales for Barack Obama in 2008?  (In fact, who would have predicted at that time Obama would be the nominee?)  The shorter news cycles have extended Presidential campaigns – meaning that 2012 contenders will be crisscrossing early target states like New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina within six months.  There will be no shortage of chances to hear from Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Palin.

CPAC is still important; but in the modern media environment, it simply cannot be as important as it once was.  CPAC may still be the conservative movement’s biggest stage, but it’s hardly the only stage anymore.

Tea leaves and straw polls

Ron Paul won’t win a Republican primary, but he took the CPAC straw poll this weekend.  Mitt Romney came in second with 22% to Paul’s 31%, and Sarah Palin was a distant third, with only 7%.

Paul is a bit of an odd duck as far as candidates go.  He can raise money and gin up excited activist, he appeals to thinkers and rabblerousers alike, but the CPAC straw poll will likely be the most significant election he ever wins.  Yet Ron Paul is not entirely a kook.  His small government ideas – including a very detailed monetary policy speak volumes about the same electoral sentiment that bristles at stimulus spending and bailouts.

Good candidates and campaigns understand that you must win both activists and voters.  Paul can do the former but not the latter, but his CPAC victory does provide a roadmap for Republicans eyeing the 2012 presidential nomination.  The trick is to understand the ideas Paul and other policy wonks talk about so much that they can take another step: explain what those ideas and policies mean to the American voter.

This is the missing ingredient in many of the conservative movement manifestos that have been making the rounds in recent weeks.  Honestly, no one gets excited about the idea of returning to the founding, or creating less government.  People get excited by a path forward that takes them to a better place.

This isn’t a call to nominate professors who can use charts and powerpoints to prove their correctness.  I like slogans and catch phrases.  But to really distill an issue into a meaningful sound bite, catch phrase, or slogan, one has to understand that issue.  Otherwise, the catchprase doesn’t translate meaningfully.

Ron Paul has bold new ideas about the direction the country ought to follow – and it’s an exciting vision to the Republicans at CPAC.  The ideal 2012 Republican nominee will talk about why those ideas will look like as national governing policy – and, more importantly, why they will help American citizens more.