With 2012 behind them, conservatives at CPAC hope to focus on the future

Chris Moody

And just like that, CPAC is cool again.

The Conservative Political Action Conference (or CPAC, pronounced SEE-PACK by the regulars), meeting this week in National Harbor, Md., is the largest annual confab of right-wing activists—and this year it's boasting an impressive lineup of speakers.

Prospective presidential candidates including Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will be on hand. Scores of House and Senate lawmakers will give speeches. Around 8,000 activists from nearly every pocket of the conservative movement will fly in from around the country. Even past national headliners, including the 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and 2008 vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin, are making appearances. And about 2,000 reporters and bloggers will make the trip to document the circus.

With last year's election hanging over the conference like a dark cloud, the meeting will serve as a much-needed time for soul-searching and rejuvenation for a movement set back by two straight presidential race losses.

With a packed schedule full of panels with titles like "Should We Shoot All the Consultants Now?" and "Expanding the Conservative Movement with the Hispanic Community," the conference is seeking to hoist activists back into the political game after November's bruising election. The conference's annual presidential straw poll will provide an interesting—yet limited—insight into the early thinking among conservative activists on whom they want to lead the party in 2016.

While CPAC has long been an important hub for conservatives—the conference is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year—it went through a rough patch two years ago when a handful of influential conservative organizations boycotted CPAC over the inclusion of GOProud, a gay conservative group. While some organizations made it clear they were boycotting over GOProud's attendance, others claimed they were pulling out because they believed CPAC was losing its relevancy.

At the time, a spokesman for the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank that joined the 2011 boycott, played down GOProud's role in its decision, saying it believed that CPAC was an increasingly irrelevant annual meeting of "graybeards."

“We’ve done CPAC over and over again, and now within the last couple of years with the rise of the tea party movement there’s a whole new huge group of people who’ve never been that involved in public policy debates before who have conservative instincts but not real grounding,” Heritage spokesman James Weidman told Yahoo News before the 2011 conference. “As they’ve organized, that opens up a multitude of opportunities to speak to these people.”

After the 2011 conference, the American Conservative Union, the group that hosts the conference, voted to ban GOProud, and Heritage ended its boycott. Since that time, Heritage's tone about the conference's influence has curiously changed. In a letter to supporters last week, for instance, Heritage called CPAC "the undisputed heavyweight champion of conferences for political activists."

From "graybeards" to "undisputed heavyweight"? What changed in just two years?

A few things. For one, GOProud's dismissal was enough to persuade the boycotters to return to the conference. Also, the ACU leadership shifted. Al Cardenas, an attorney and lobbyist from Florida, replaced David Keene as chairman. (Keene went on to become the president of the National Rifle Association.) Since Cardenas took the reins, he has worked to bolster the CPAC brand around the country by putting on a series of smaller, regional conferences in Florida, Colorado and Illinois.

So this year, with the election in their rear-view mirror, CPAC attendees can work on defining the future of both the Republican Party and the conservative movement. More than half of attendees this year are under 25, and the ACU will eventually be forced to consider the effect of a growing group of conservatives who hold increasingly liberal views on social issues, especially same-sex marriage. It is a balancing act conservatives everywhere are grappling with, and CPAC can serve as an important forum for that debate.