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It's not hard to make fun of CPAC. From the presence of Donald Trump to a meaningless straw poll to a cavalcade of fringe...
It's not hard to make fun of CPAC. From the presence of Donald Trump to a meaningless straw poll to a cavalcade of fringe-dwelling book merchants, the event has become more carnival than conservative salon.
What is more notable about this year's rendition of the annual confab, which begins outside Washington on Thursday, is not the easy caricature but how thoroughly the Conservative Political Action Conference reflects the state of the Republican Party four months after yet another humbling presidential defeat. It is a muddle, but a muddle with meaning.
Establishment Republicans are angry that popular GOP governors Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell are being snubbed, but conservatives, seeing Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush invited, are moaning that a traditional movement event has been annexed by the country club crowd.
Future Republican bright lights will be in attendance, but so will yesterday's news, most of it with headlines no one wants to read.
A Republican gay group isn't welcome yet neither are hard-liners on immigration.
And another member of the Paul family is poised, to the frustration of organizers, to again win the presidential straw poll.
For decades, perhaps even for a century now, Republicans have grappled with their moderate-conservative divide. But as the CPAC jumble illustrates, the confusion surrounding the party is now more complex than the enduring center vs. right paradigm.
"We all need to be singing from same hymnal," cautions former Mississippi governor and Clinton-era Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour. "When the other side has the megaphone of the White House, it makes it all the more important that your side sticks together on message and has more message discipline. We have to have moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans, neo-con Republicans, tea party people all saying, 'Here are the thing we agree on and that we should emphasize.'"
But as CPAC gets under way, it's the differences that are coming into stark relief. The gathering has long been seen as an early indicator about the state of conservatives and that's no different today. But unfortunately for the right, it's the GOP's identity crisis that now's being reflected by CPAC.
And it's a dark night of the soul that's been building for years. Each of the three legs of Ronald Reagan's venerated Republican stool has gone wobbly in the wake of consecutive White House defeats, as the party grapples with both a core constituency that's increasingly at odds with public opinion and the legacy of its most recentpresident.
The pillars of the conservative era ushered in by Reagan -- a muscular defense, traditional cultural values and devotion to free markets - are being questioned by leading Republicans, and what could take the place of the Gipper's trinity is now being openly debated in a fashion more reminiscent of the famously fractious Democrats of yore.
Republican leaders are questioning the interventionist foreign policy that President George W. Bush and the party's last two nominees paid obeisance to; party elites are urging a more tolerant or even supportive stance on gay rights and would be just fine if abortion wasn't discussed at all; and while conservative thinkers muse about a harder line on Wall Street, many GOP governors are bowing to the greatest expansion of the welfare state since the Great Society and their contemporaries in Congress, having just raised taxes at the start of the year, still entertain the possibility of more revenue increases in exchange for a fiscal grand bargain.
"We have to, as a Republican Party, get bigger, not smaller, and we're a party that's becoming more regionalized and I think a smaller, less significant national party," said Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, deadpanning: "We're a great red state party."
The way to compete in blue America, Paul said, is to embrace a more restrained foreign policy and take a federalist approach on values issues.
"If you want to get together a majority in California I think your only chance is to be more of a libertarian Republican," said Paul, who is considering a presidential bid in 2016 and believes the views of his father, former congressman and long-shot presidential hopeful Ron Paul, are being vindicated. "So it's funny that those who resisted the influence of libertarian Republicans from 2008 to 2012 - I think we're smart to revisit that. When I talk to the national party I think they're aware of that."
But while Paul seeks to remake the GOP in his image, other party leaders, such as Barbour, hope to downplay differences and believe consensus is the only way to be relevant in the Obama era. Open internal warfare, this view goes, merely offers aid and comfort to the opposition. In other words, Republicans can't even agree on whether they should litigate their disagreements.
And here again, CPAC illustrates the problems rather than the solutions. The loudest statement from the conference may have come before it even began. McDonnell, who pushed through a major transportation bill last month that raised some taxes, and Christie, who publicly embraced President Barack Obama after Hurricane Sandy and accepted the Affordable Care Act's expansion of Medicaid, have been excluded.
But, as their defenders note, in addition to their perceived apostasies, the duo also happen to be among the most popular GOP governors in America, as well as potential presidential candidates, and were the first indicators of the conservative backlash when they were elected in 2009.
Tom Kean, the former New Jersey governor, called it "stupidity" that Christie wasn't asked to speak and argues that it exemplifies his party's ills.
"You have probably the most popular governor in the country in New Jersey, and this is supposed to be a showcase of conservative ideas," Kean said, arguing that CPAC's Christie rejection "reinforces something about the party that is a real negative."
That negative? "If you want to succeed in politics you build a broad coalition. ... You want to be elected nationally, you build that broad coalition that's inclusive not exclusive. Anybody who tries to say if you can't accept our definition of Republican you're not a Republican are just ensuring that Republicans are not going to win another national election."
Barbour also said that not inviting Christie and McDonnell over issue differences "is a mistake."
Al Cardenas, who oversees CPAC as head of the American Conservative Union, shrugged at the critique.
"There are a lot of folks active in the peanut gallery," he said. "You get comments from the left, comments from the right. Look. We have a very thorough vetting process."
But CPAC isn't simply imposing purity tests on speakers. Were that the case, the likes of Romney, Jeb Bush and certainly Trump wouldn't be gracing the stage. Instead, it's an amalgam of names from the past (Romney, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Connie Mack) and party leaders of the present and future (Paul, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, Reince Priebus).
"Explain to me how Mitt Romney is the future of the Republican Party when we're trying to look forward," complained one senior Republican.
To CPAC veterans, the event's evolution into a GOP cattle call that's more closely identified with Republicanism than conservatism is the most worrisome development, particularly at a time when true believers need to take stock.
"We really have to have a serious discussion about where our movement can go," said longtime conservative PR maven Diana Banister. "And the movement is separate and apart from the Republican Party and should remain so."
Moreover, the invitations to the likes of Trump and Palin and the "Crossfire"-like debate between Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala signal that organizers are as interested in attracting buzz as confronting policy differences.
"It has become celebrified," lamented Banister, who is still going to attend on behalf of clients.
"Political reporters look at the elevated importance of it, but I do think it's a cavalcade mostly built around what conservative book publishers and movie producers are interested in," added GOP strategist Chris Henick.
Lighten up, responds Cardenas, who calls critics "boring."
"To think that there's a dichotomy between intellectual stimulation and just good old fashioned fun -- I mean what's with that?" he said. "We've got 32 panels comprised of the most significant academics and intellectuals that we have in the conservative movement. We've got sessions going for 14 hours."
Indeed, away from the would-be candidates and rabble-rousers on the main stage there's a whole other world of controversy at CPAC that's also a stand-in for what the GOP is wrestling with as a party.
GOProud, a Republican gay rights group, has for the second consecutive year not been allowed to sponsor or formally participate in the conference. But The Competitive Enterprise Institute is sponsoring a panel called "A Rainbow on the Right: Growing the Coalition, Bringing Tolerance Out of the Closet" and has included the head of GOProud as one of the participants.
Immigration, too, is flaring up as a point of contention. Cardenas is an outspoken backer of immigration reform, and the CPAC panel on the topic is stacked with like-minded Republicans at a moment when the issue still divides conservatives.
To some in the party, immigration reform is nothing short of imperative for GOP survival.
"Immigration is an existential issue for the party," said veteran strategist Terry Nelson. "If we can't get it right, we're going to be in trouble for a long, long time.
But other Republicans think party elites are out of step with their base on the issue.
"This is the culmination of turning CPAC in a monolithic pro-amnesty event," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and a leading foe of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Krikorian faulted not Cardenas but Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist who also sits on the board of the American Conservative Union, CPAC's parent.
"CPAC has always been under the thumb of Grover," said Krikorian.
Shot back Norquist: "If he imagines he didn't get invited to speak because I opposed this, he is incorrect. If he claims this is true, he is lying."
Noting the odd exclusion of immigration reform opponents but also GOProud and McDonnell, Krikorian said with a laugh: "It really is kind of confused."
And there's the CPAC straw poll, an honor that grim-faced event organizers have had to bestow on Ron Paul in recent years. The younger Paul will certainly be at or near the top of the running this year, beating or at least competitive with mainstream favorites like Bush and Rubio.
Indeed, nothing may represent the threat to GOP business as usual like the ascent of the Bowling Green ophthalmologist.
In an interview Tuesday with a small group of reporters at National Review, he was open about his desire to move Republicans to Obama's left on national security.
"When you saw the debate between President Obama and Romney on foreign policy, they sounded pretty similar," Paul said. "In the vice presidential debate, Biden was more assertive, but Ryan didn't disagree with most of his positions. It was sort of like, 'We'll either come a little bit slower out of Afghanistan, or we'll do this.' But Biden had a good response, 'We're coming home.' And I think that's what people want; I think that's what people are ready for, that we're coming home."
And on cultural issues, Paul would like to take marriage out of the tax code altogether, soften the GOP's approach to illegal drugs and compromise on immigration.
To be a national party again, Paul contends, there also must be a bit of political federalism and tolerance within the GOP.
"I would say that one leg [of the GOP stool] has to be bigger, depending on what part of the country you're standing in," said Paul.
There's some evidence that Paul's argument rings true on national security. The most telling part of his jeremiad against drones last week was not that he was joined by other Republicans -- many of whom just wanted to be aligned with the latest round of Obama-bashing -- but rather how little blowback he got beyond that from the most predictable hawks.
Even some Republican regulars view the step away from such an aggressive foreign policy as a healthy correction to the Bush years.
"We're not the policeman of the world," said Barbour, hardly a dove.
But the interventionists aren't going away and will surely have their own candidates in 2016 cautioning against any sort of retreat abroad.
Rick Santorum, the Republican runner-up last year, may be one of those candidates.
"I disagree with Sen. Paul's isolationist policies and believe that the most important role of our president is to keep us safe," said Santorum on Tuesday.
Further, the preference shared by Paul and many in the ranks of the GOP elite to play down social issues will be stoutly resisted by a conservative base that remains unapologetically opposed to same-sex marriage, abortion rights and amnesty for illegal immigrants. And that's to say nothing of grass-roots Republicans who want to see Obamacare defunded not accommodated and a "hell no" approach on taxes.
This, even more than differing views on national security, poses the most significant challenge for Republicans: how to return to majority status when, on issue after issue, the views of your base are out of step with the country at large.
"The most disconcerting thing to me right now is there has not been another point in memory where the base of Republicans is so far from where a majority of the electorate is," said one of the party's most well-known operatives.
Kean agreed that there "is a gap" between the GOP base and where the rest of the country is, but he is more worried about the reflex to read out heretics rather than tolerate some drifting from the true faith.
"No great coalition, no great party ever has agreed on everything," he said,
"The Republican Party is facing an identity crisis," said GOP pollster Steve Lombardo. "But it's not that the party doesn't know who it is -- it's that part of the party knows exactly who they are, and they don't want to move from a very rigid and defined identity."
Alexander Trowbridge contributed to this report.