If there was a defining theme on the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) it was the delicate and not always controlled balance between expected shows of political unity and the divisions that criss-cross even this group of core conservative activists.
While the debate, some might call it a schism, between devoted social conservatives and those who believe "culture war" issues should be put aside if not forgotten all together, has been growing for some time, CPAC has thrust this division into the spotlight. The controversy over gay conservative advocacy group GOProud's sponsorship of CPAC has made national headlines, but the cracks within the conservative movement around gay rights issues run far deeper than one group or one conference. As panel discussions entitled "How Political Correctness is Harming America's Military" and "Traditional Marriage and Society" were going on in the ballrooms above, the crowds and organizations in the exhibition hall below reflected a much less unified front on gay rights and other social issues. Brandon Greife, Political Director for the College National Republican Committee and blogger with US News and World Report, characterized his organization as taking "more of a 'big tent' approach" when it comes to the inclusiveness of the conservative movement, although it does not take a national stance on the views of social conservative organizations such as the Family Research Council. "Golden Isles Tea Party" representative William Temple, dressed in full costume as Georgia Revolutionary War figure Button Gwinnett, gave a simple answer when asked his views on the Tea Party's acceptance of minority groups, saying "we're for Teaocrats and Teapublicans, and anyone who lines up with those principals is welcome into our group."
The reality remains however, that while those pushing greater inclusiveness of the GBLT community, racial and religious minorities within the GOP have benefited from media curiosity as of late, social conservatism remains firmly entrenched both at the leadership and rank-and-file levels of the conservative movement. Hardly a speaker took the main stage at CPAC without at least mentioning the "dangers" of "sawing a leg off the conservative platform." Others were more forceful while imploring the audience not to allow the conservative definition of marriage to be, in the words of conservative Bishop Harry Jackson, "thrown under the bus." Even Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (PFOX) a group decried by most gay rights groups and a perennial CPAC attendee, set up a booth just a few rows over from GOProud's representatives. Perhaps most noticeable overall, was the missing presence of social conservative groups and voices such as the American Principals Project, Family Research Council, and Senator Jim DeMint. This may very well have contributed to the relative liberal/libertarian slant of many of the CPAC attendees interviewed.
Far more unexpected than the dynamics of competing GOP views on social issues, was the reaction of the crowd of core conservative activists to appearances by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former Vice President Dick Cheney. Rather than being welcomed wholeheartedly by the conservative group, Rumsfeld was forced to compete with screams of "Where's Bin Laden at?" and Cheney had to deal with competing chants of "War criminal!" and "USA! USA!" from admirers and detractors alike. While the crowd's reaction to the pair's combined digs at the Obama administration was generally supportive, the loud combination of applause and jeers as Rumsfeld named Cheney "the best Vice President in modern history" was quite unmistakable. Even two years on, self-identified conservatives still appear split on the Bush legacy.
While the GOP is generally considered a more homogenous and more easily unified coalition than its Democratic counterpart, the ideological cracks shown at CPAC are quite unmistakable, and frankly, are what make politics interesting to cover. Whether those cracks prove fatal or transformative for Republicans, however, very much remains to be seen.