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Sam Koppelman Headshot

CPAC: Like-Minded People Getting Together

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The organizers of CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference), running diverse panels on topics ranging from "The Future of The Movement: Winning With Generation X/Y" to "Trumping The Race Card," were trying to make a statement: the Republican party is not just a bunch of old white men who don't like paying taxes. And for the first several days of CPAC, their rebranding seemed to work. The New York Times acknowledged the diversity at CPAC, with an article entitled "GOP Divisions Fester At CPAC Retreat" and much of the talk surrounding CPAC in the media was about its diversity of opinion. But when I asked J.D. Hayworth, a former Republican Congressman from Arizona, what makes CPAC special, it was clear he hadn't gotten the memo: the purpose, he said, "is just like-minded people getting together." And sadly, at this point in American history, regardless of how hard they try to rebrand or create new messaging, the mainstream Republican Party, at its core, is still "just like-minded people getting together."

CPAC was organized, in many respects, as an appeal to the next generation of Americans; the speakers given prime time slots were, largely, those said to be a part of future of the Republican Party; panels were formed around the idea of "The Future of the Movement;" Rand Paul's speech focused on how to appeal to the "Facebook generation;" and in the convention hall, many stations were set up, including one whose goal was "getting millennials job opportunities," with iPad raffles and mini-basketball hoops to attract the youth at the conference. So, one would be led to expect that Republicans would also be promoting policies that they felt would appeal to America's youth at CPAC.

But whenever I asked Republican politicians and thinkers whether or not they were willing to alter some of their policies in the aftermath of losing last year's election with the goal of attracting new, younger voters, they repeatedly turned back to messaging, not policy. At the panel on the youth's place in the conservative movement, one panelist said that the reason Republicans struggle with obtaining the support of young Americans is "how we [conservatives] talk about the issue," while another panelist, said "it just comes to framing the issues." Meanwhile, when I asked former Congressman J.D. Hayworth about whether or not he felt the Republican Party needed to change their stances on policies, he repeatedly claimed that "we need to embrace new methods of getting our ideas out, but I don't think you change the basic message."

But when I asked the same question to conservative talk show host, Rusty Humphries, he didn't bother to incorporate platitudes on the importance of sticking with your beliefs into his answer. Rather, he encapsulated what I interpreted as the real belief of the masses at CPAC: who cares if people disagree with us; this is what we stand for, and we don't think that the election and subsequent reelection of President Barack Obama is the mark of a larger trend.

"Everybody loses elections," he began, "Are [Republicans] gonna get a new message? Sure. Is it going to resonate with the youth? Maybe. The youth votes sometimes. They don't vote other times. You had a very unique guy run for president in Obama and he energized a lot of people." He waited a beat and laughed: "Let's just hope Joe Biden is the nominee next time."

I went around CPAC asking Republicans whether they supported universal background checks and received no direct answers. From answers as general as tax-maven, lobbyist Grover Norquist's -- "if it was universal background checks that was automatic and it wasn't registration, [I would support it], but that's not what Democrats want!" -- to ones as specific as Congressman Steve King's -- "when someone writes a background check law that doesn't prohibit me from giving my grandmother's 4-10 that she shot [chickens] with to my grandson without having an intervening federal officer, then perhaps... I'd have a different opinion" -- every answer I heard dodged the basic point of my questions: Over 90 percent of Americans support universal background checks, so why don't you? At the conference, I couldn't reconcile the Republicans' attempts to attract new voters with their refusal to change their beliefs on nearly unanimously supported political beliefs.

But perhaps Humphries' belief, in many ways, is the justification of the apparent hypocrisy prevalent at CPAC that others at the conference were too afraid to say. If you truly believe that these last two elections were a fluke, and that people vote on candidates rather than policies, then there is no reason for you to change your fundamental belief system. After all, maybe Democrats will nominate Joe Biden next time.

Although analyzing the messaging of the Republican Party's platform is an interesting activity and one that can be written about extensively, the reason Republicans have failed to attract America's youth -- as made clear by CPAC -- has very little to do with messaging after all. It's not that the youth needs to "listen to [the Republican] party," as was suggested by a conservative panelist, it's that the Republican party needs to listen to the youth. Many of the policies the next generation of Americans believe in are ones that should, theoretically, at least, coincide with those of the Republican party. Republicans claim that they are the party of individual liberties. So, why wouldn't they support the right of gays to marry? Why wouldn't they support the legalization of marijuana, giving individuals the choice of whether or not to consume it? Why wouldn't they support a woman's right to an abortion, giving her the power to make her decision individually? The Republican Party's problem isn't their ability to message; their problem is their message itself.

Republicans simultaneously support the Patriot Act, which permits the government to "intercept wire, oral, and electronic communications relating to terrorism," but, as J.D. Hayworth explained to me, are against gun control because it violates "search and seizure." They claim the government had the right to implement the Patriot Act because "national security" was at stake, but they don't believe that guns, which result in the death of thousands of Americans each year, jeopardize national security? I promise you that, until the Republican Party has a message not convoluted by the types of hypocrisy mentioned above, we will not fall for their messaging.