It’s almost 1:00 on Friday afternoon. The crowd at the Gaylord Resort has just finished shuffling in and out of the Potomac ballroom as Rand Paul’s raucous young supporters give way to Rick Santorum’s more muted, yet still loyal, following. Outside the ballroom, a huge range of online media outlets and radio hosts interview the constantly-moving crowd of political figures vying for the support of the masses, and an equally large number of activist organizations are vying for attention in the exhibit hall two floors below.
The halfway point of the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference is upon us. And so far, it’s been a mixed bag.
Despite CPAC’s modern status as a de facto “Superbowl of Conservatism,” the organizers wanted to restore the intimacy of past years’ events to this year’s format. As a result, several noticeable changes have been implemented in this year’s program. The most obvious one is the main stage. Rather than using a traditional stage structure, the podium and panelist discussion area are projected forward into the crowd, with audience seats surrounding on all sides so that the spectators feel more connected with the speakers. And unlike last year’s program, which was sorely bereft of smaller breakout panels, dozens of panels and activism training sessions dot the three day schedule, giving attendees a lot more exposure to experts and learning opportunities. In addition, a heavier use of PowerPoint and other visual aids has broken down information in a way that more easily communicates important ideas to attendees.
Even though these changes are very noticeable, the event still serves its fundamental purpose as a platform for right-leaning political figures and groups. As a result, the CPAC 2015 main stage has been graced with its predictable share of red meat speeches and the requisite amount of political posturing from GOP party leaders and 2016 hopefuls alike. Just a few minutes ago, Rand Paul had the crowd on its feet cheering, with chants of “President Paul” echoing in the room. Rick Santorum is garnering cheers as well, making strong statements on our need to take more aggressive measures to restore balance to the Middle East and defeat ISIS.
By contrast, other speakers have made some seriously bad political decisions. Donald Trump tactlessly cracked a “You’re Fired” joke at a loud audience member right before trying to argue that that he wasn’t attending the conference to boost his image or have fun. He also brought back up the birther dispute, citing credit for getting Obama to release a digital birth certificate and then questioning whether or not we really knew if it was authentic. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus dealt a low blow when talking about the discovery that Hillary Clinton’s foundation had received tens of millions from foreign governments and leaders. Without blinking, Priebus suggested that a President Hillary Clinton would be willing to accept personal bribes from foreign governments to make bad policy decisions. While the controversy surrounding Hillary’s foreign donations needs to be thoroughly investigated, accusing someone of treasonous future behavior to score cheap points is a classless tactic.
Yesterday, Chris Christie and Ted Cruz each had their moment in the spotlight, and both did exactly what they needed to do. Christie tried with mixed success to re-position himself as a conservative. Cruz tried to stand out as a leader with powerful vision who would stand for the conservative voter. These tactics ended up helping Christie and, in my view, slightly hurt Cruz (I could hear the polish and overly-prepped tone in his voice, and it was highly uncharacteristic). The only candidate I have heard thus far who deviated from expectations was Carly Fiorina, who had a surprisingly strong foreign policy message and set herself apart as a more serious 2016 contender who could potentially challenge Hillary Clinton.
The main panel discussions, while informative, have reflected some of the cultural detachment that the American Conservative Union still needs to overcome. Rather than hosting it at a time in the weekend where college students and other twenty-somethings would be more likely to attend and ask tough questions of the panelists, the panel on reaching out to Millenials was scheduled as the very first panel on Thursday morning. Some panels have also reflected the lack of cultural awareness of the moderators or speakers. During the intellectual property panel, the moderator asked one of the most awkward questions possible on a basic issue related to the right of parody: fan fiction and creative license. “Let’s say you want to draw Batman fighting… [Long Pause]… Um, some other Marvel character… How would you do that?” The panelist answered fairly well, but the culture gap was painfully obvious for anyone remotely aware of what artists and other media producers deal with when crafting new art and content.
Additionally, I’ve found very little in the exhibitor hall of any value. While there is a book vendor selling conservative reading material and several other booths with interactive events, the groups are all basically there to offer their own unique brand to the masses. Most booths come across as a very expensive advertising pitch rather than offering anything substantive to conference-goers.
However, I probably shouldn’t mention this critique in the presence of the evil Govtron and his Iron Minions…
— David Giffin (@D_Giffin) February 26, 2015
— David Giffin (@D_Giffin) February 26, 2015
That being said, however, the dynamism of other panelists and speakers has been a major bright spot of this year’s event. Political commentator Tom Basile led a fantastic discussion on messaging and communication that really highlighted the issues political activists face when competing for the attention of average, politically disengaged citizens. A panel on broadening the conservative base actually discussed substantive issues of relating to female voters and minority citizens, going into far more details than past CPAC panels which have stayed on the surface with platitudes about showing these groups that conservative ideas work for them too. In a personally surprising move, CPAC included a series of speakers in their Activism Boot Camp series that discussed the role of dissident art, storytelling, and even street art and caricature as tools of outreach and political messaging. Ideas like this would never have been coming out of the mouths of speakers a few years ago, and demonstrate a real effort on the part of the ACU to make conservative activism relevant in light of changing social issues.
As I now sit back and listen to Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson receive the Andrew Breitbart Award and pray from the stage, I definitely hope that there’s some divine guidance improving the last day and a half of this event. While CPAC 2015 has definitely had some significant format improvements and moments of promise from the training sessions, the polished punditry of the mainstage speakers and the moments of cultural disconnect are still glaring and problematic. The ACU needs to really work out those issues to make CPAC truly meaningful, beyond the role it serves as as a political Superbowl event.
While I can’t say that CPAC 2015 is a blockbuster yet, there’s still a day and a half left to go. So sit back, relax, and pop some popcorn. Even if it bombs, this is going to be fun to watch.