At CPAC, Young Conservatives Calling for Change

Elahe Izadi
National Journal

Conservative activists at this year’s CPAC conference are engaging in their own soul-searching about the party’s future, with many acknowledging the need for some major changes in messaging, and even policy, in the wake of their 2012 losses.

The panel topics at the annual conservative conference signal the need for some kind of change. A number of forums tackled immigration, which leading conservatives are now looking to as an anecdote to dwindling Hispanic voters.

“I am absolutely convinced that we are only one candidate and one election away from resurrection,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres said during a Thursday panel on immigration policy. “In order to be resurrected, we’ve got to have a different message -- a different message and we’ve got to have different messengers.”

Although one audience member yelled out “legally” when Ayres urged conservative outreach to immigrants to find new allies, much of the rhetoric was dialed back. “Undocumented” rather than “illegal” was the preferred language. Much of the panel discussion revolved around how conservatives need to be “tonally sensitive” on immigration.  In response, Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho said, somewhat in exasperation, “I know tone is important, but we need to stop flagellating ourselves,” he said. “We need to stop blaming ourselves for this problem, and we need to be the party of ideas.”

Some younger activists said there’s a need to tackle immigration reform and change the packaging of the GOP's message to Hispanics. Jacob Whitney, a 15-year-old from California, said that “without Hispanic outreach, I’m pretty much pessimistic” on the future of the party. He noted Sen. Marco Rubio’s State of the Union response in Spanish as a step in the right direction. And when it comes to social issues like gay marriage, “either don’t talk about them or have a different policy.”

“Choose good representatives for your party, not 85-year-olds,” Whitney said. “And it needs to be relevant to what [young people] care about.”

While Rubio and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky were the stars on the conference’s first day –- “Stand with Rand” stickers and signs were ubiquitous throughout the convention center --  notably absent from the event was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of country’s most popular Republican governors.

The CPAC snub of Christie is something 24-year-old Aaron Marcus of New Jersey said was “absurd” and signals deeper issues for the right movement. Christie’s record of enacting conservative principles in governing a blue state makes Christie “a transformational figure,” Marcus said. He even wrote in Christie’s name for the straw poll.

The place of gays within the conservative movement came into focus during a non-official panel later in the day. GOProud, a gay conservative group, had participated in past years but wasn't invited this year. A CPAC host, Competitive Enterprise Institute, sponsored a panel featuring GOProud officials and conservative supporters entitled “Rainbow on the right: growing the coalition, bringing tolerance out of the closet.”

GOProud Executive Director Jimmy LaSalvia spoke to a standing room-only crowd. “If we want to make this country better, we have to win elections. Aren’t you tired of losing? I am too,” he said. “Our outreach efforts need to be everybody in every community. We need to recognize and realize the reality of the world we’re living in today, and the world today includes gay people living their lives openly and honestly. And guess what? Conservative policies benefit gay people, just like everybody else.” The crowd enthusiastically applauded.

Sarah Snow, a Marietta College student, said she happy to see the panel on the schedule. She said she has gay friends at school whom she's persuaded to identify with conservative positions, but the GOP's position on gay marriage was a major hurdle. Now Snow wants Republicans to change their rhetoric around the topic. There are signs some Republicans are moving in that direction: Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, one of the GOP's most prominent voices, announced his support for gay marriage Friday, revealing in a Columbus Dispatch op-ed that his 21-year-old son, Will, is gay.

“I’m very optimistic with the future of the millennials. When we become old enough to take office and legislate, we’ll have a more open conservative movement,” Snow said. “I don’t think there’s much hope with the older generation.”