02/26/2009 11:52 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Conservatives Search For Direction

by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, and Ryan Powers

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Nearly 9,000 conservative activists from across the country are expected to convene at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C. today, an event that has been called "a Mecca of sorts for conservatives." At last year's gathering, both President Bush and Vice President Cheney addressed the right-wing base, "the first time in 35 years" that both the president and vice president had addressed the conference in person in the same year. Now, with the Bush administration out of office and Republicans holding a weakened minority in Congress, the conference will feature a who's who of right-wing personalities vying to be the next leader of the conservative movement. Despite President Obama's popularity and the increasingly center-left nature of America, the conference's organizers believe that "if conservatives adhere to their fundamental principles and do not compromise them for political expediency, they will soon win again." "On basic core beliefs, we remain a marginally right of center country," claimed American Conservative Union chairman David Keene, the chief CPAC organizer, in a speech at the National Press Club this week. Reflecting the hardline fervor of the event's organizers, the "star attraction" at CPAC this year is hate radio host Rush Limbaugh, who will be making his first appearance at the annual gathering. Limbaugh, the "unofficial leader" of the Republican Party, will deliver the conference's final speech before receiving the "Defender of the Constitution Award."

RE-BRANDING OLD IDEAS: As the Republican Party is now "engaged in a fierce debate over how to redefine itself after having been removed from power on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue," CPAC will be ground zero for much of that argument. Kicking off with a panel discussion titled, "Timeless Principles, New Challenges: The Future of the Conservative Movement," the conference's attendees will spend three days trading ideas about how to revive the withered prospects of conservatism as a real force in American political life. But if Keene's recent op-ed in the Washington Times is any indication, the discussion will focus on new ways to sell old, stagnant ideas. "Conservative values continue to appeal to vast numbers of Americans, but conservative politicians sometimes fail to communicate those values effectively or live up to them once elected," wrote Keene. "The remedy is not to abandon the values and beliefs that brought us into the political arena in the first place, but to do a better job organizing, communicating, reaching out to new voters and recruiting candidates who are in it for more than a job and the booty that goes with it." Exemplifying the sorry state of old ideas is the slate of predictable speakers, which features speeches from right-wing luminaries like John Bolton, Newt Gingrich, and Ann Coulter.

OBSTRUCTIONIST AGENDA: Beyond efforts to re-energize the conservative movement, the assembled politicians and activists at CPAC will be plotting on how to stop Obama's agenda. On Friday, three right-wing members of Congress -- Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-KS), Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), and Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ) -- will complain about Obama's efforts to restart the America's financial system on a panel called "Bailing Out Big Business: Are We All Socialists Now?" Later that day, former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore is scheduled to talk about whether Obama's tax policy will "kill entrepreneurship" (if the 1990s are any indication, it won't). Yet another panel, called "Health Care: The Train Wreck Ahead," will. On Saturday, before Limbaugh continues his call for Obama to "fail," there will be three panels featuring climate change skeptics and deniers who are likely to attack Obama's push for a cap-and-trade program. Opposition to Obama, rather than the cooperation desired by the American people, will undoubtedly be a consistent theme of the conference. For example, in his speech at the National Press Club on Tuesday, Keene praised the Republican opposition to Obama's economic recovery package, saying that it meant "the Republican Party finally is showing signs of doing a better job of formulating its message."

THE FRINGE REVEALED: Described by some as "Mardi Gras for the Right" and "an all-inclusive vacation for conservatives," CPAC is infamous for candid moments in which the right wingers drop their guard and reveal their true beliefs. For instance, in 2007, Coulter's homophobia was put on display when she said that she couldn't "really talk about" then-Democratic presidential candidate and former senator John Edwards because "you have to go into rehab if you use the word 'faggot.'" In 2005, then-California congressman Chris Cox introduced Cheney by declaring that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. "We continue to discover biological and chemical weapons and facilities to make them inside Iraq," said Cox. Salon's Michelle Goldberg reported at the time that "no one gasped" at Cox's "startling revelation" because the fiction was an accepted truism for the CPAC attendees. In 2003, one official vendor at the conference sold "No Muslims = No Terrorists" bumper stickers, though he was forced to put them away while Cheney was speaking.