As everyone knows, the first step is admitting you have a problem.
Yet during my three days attending the Conservative Political Action Conference, I failed to find much recognition from conservatives that their movement has a "secular problem."
As I wrote here just before CPAC, the conservative "secular problem" is their severe lack of competitiveness with the 40%-43% of voters who don't regularly attend church.
Because of that problem, according to the exit poll data, conservatives no longer control Congress. In turn I concluded, "conservatives have to find a way to speak to the substantive concerns of secular voters: low wages, poor health care coverage, energy dependence, destabilizing foreign policy and the imposition of religious beliefs on others."
Yet the dominant diagnosis at CPAC was that the Republican Party just wasn't conservative enough.
Not enough slashing of our government. Not enough bashing of immigrants. Not enough promotion of heterosexuality. Not enough action to eliminate Britney Spears from American pop culture.
I'm afraid that last line was not a joke. I heard three different speakers point to singer's troubles as some sort of evidence of America's societal collapse.
For example, Robert Wright of the Media Research Center, in arguing against the nomination of Rudy Giuliani, said:
We need to defend the country ... but we can't allow our country to become Sodom and Gomorrah in the meantime. Because those guys fighting over there, what are they fighting for? Are they fighting so Britney Spears can lose it and go bald?
To be sure, there was some focus on the issues secular voters (and many religious voters) care about. But the messages need a little work.
Take Scott Hodge of the Tax Foundation. During his presentation on America's progressive tax structure, he expertly summed up the conservative message in five simple words:
The rich are getting screwed.
Or Jeff Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute (aka, the lobbyists for Big Oil). He had this answer for America's energy security problem:
Energy independence is not a possible option
Those messages might resonate in the all-important well-heeled, global warming denial demographic.
But most of the secular voters conservatives need would like to see everyone contribute their fair share in taxes, and maybe even invest a little bit of that to finance the path to energy independence.
Perhaps the clearest indication that conservatives are failing to grasp their secular problem was their passionate embrace of Newt Gingrich -- who received the most thunderous audience response of any CPAC speaker, and is looking more and more like a presidential candidate.
In particular, his characterization of keeping "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance as a "big solution" and a Top 3 priority, showed a glaring ignorance of the conservative secular problem.
Sure, Newt is correct to say that 91% of the country supports the Pledge as is. That means most secular and religious voters are already fine with it.
But keeping what's already there isn't a "solution" to anything. And treating this non-issue like a national emergency reveals a deeply misguided sense of priorities, which won't lure secular voters into the conservative camp.
Neither will his blaming of the Katrina victims in New Orleans' Ninth Ward for a "failure of citizenship" and not "get[ting] out of the way."
And so, with the conservative movement failing to accept and address its secular problem during it's three-day annual gathering, it looks like they're going to be stuck on Step 1 for some time.
Bill Scher blogs for Campaign for America's Future.