Boycotting CPAC is a mistake

Adam Salmon Contributor
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The cloud of controversy surrounding this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference continues to swirl, with the Washington Times reporting on Tuesday that a memo featuring several high-profile signatories had been sent to the American Conservative Union specifically protesting the acceptance of Republican gay rights advocacy group GOProud as an event sponsor. Among those named were prominent conservative figures Phyllis Schlafly, Ken Blackwell, Brent Bozell, and Colin Hanna.

Obviously, these individuals and the other groups who have elected (for whatever reason) to withdraw their sponsorship of CPAC are free to do as they please. If they are no longer realizing any value in sponsoring or having an official presence at one of the conservative movement’s premier gatherings, that’s certainly understandable.

However, that some of these individuals and organizations are actively boycotting CPAC instead of just blowing it off isn’t exactly what I’d call “competing in the marketplace of ideas.” It’s taking your ball and going home. And it doesn’t exactly exude the confidence and leadership that one would expect from some of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy’s most notable and durable brands.

What you have here instead is the very opposite of movement-building. For decades, CPAC has functioned as a stakeholders’ meeting of sorts, and a must-make destination for any conservative political candidate considering a presidential run. Attendees have the unique opportunity to see and hear from all of these rising stars, in person and in rapid succession. That’s not to say that the event (or its much-ballyhooed straw poll) is predictive — John McCain, for example, has never been a CPAC darling — but it is considered obligatory, as it provides both the up-and-coming and establishment politician with a platform to take his or her case directly to a bright, young, right-leaning activist base.

The real benefit of this exercise is that what you hear from these speakers is going to be more similar to their general election rhetoric than, say, what might be heard at the Values Voter Summit. By and large, the hopefuls deliver messages that have been carefully crafted to appeal to the wider mainstream of conservative thought. The problem is, this “wider mainstream of conservative thought” has always been a moving target, and with the emergence of the Tea Party as an electoral force, is especially so now.

Today’s conservative movement needs a crucible like CPAC more than ever, so that the consensus that is clearly lacking on contentious issues such as gay rights can begin to form in service of tomorrow’s conservative movement. Regrettably, it seems that some of the linchpins of yesterday’s conservative movement are not only unwilling to engage in this debate, but unwilling to even show up for it.

Adam Salmon is a proud graduate of the University of Kentucky and was formerly in operations management at a D.C. think tank. He is currently on the prowl for a position on the Hill. Follow him on Twitter @adamjsalmon.