Last weekend, conservatives from across America came together for the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference. CPAC 2015 served as an opportunity for like-minded activists, students, and citizens to come together with top writers, politicians, and experts to explore the issues that are directly facing Americans.
As I wrote at the halfway point on Friday, the first part of the conference was a mixed bag. On the one hand, there were some absolutely wonderful moments from individual speakers and training sessions that set this year’s CPAC apart from the past few. On the other hand, there were very few truly distinctive speeches from presidential hopefuls. There were also some moments that showed how the ACU (and the speakers it invited) can sometimes still struggle to connect on social and cultural issues.
I left my last article with the message that the ACU needed to keep building on CPAC’s good elements and do away with the bad to really make the year stand out. At the end of the day, I can’t say for sure that they succeeded in doing that.
On the one hand, CPAC maintained the strength it had started displaying in many of the panel discussions and training sessions. Particularly standing out were the panels on Islamic extremism and religious liberty. While neither was perfect, both featured speakers with a range of experiences and different levels of engagement. The panel on Islamic extremism drew its strength from the panelists’ willingness to engage in careful analysis of actual Islamic teachings and traditions, thanks especially to the participation of Dr. Zudhi Jasser.
The religious liberty panel was a refreshing change from last year’s program, which had shoehorned religious liberty issues into an Obamacare panel and gave the issue almost no other mention. Featuring radio host Dana Loesch, Representative Randy Neugebauer (TX-18), and Tony Perkins from the Family Research Council, this panel offered a good mix of people with a variety of perspectives on the state of religious liberty in America. Loesch was able to speak on the experiences of her radio audience to help indicate the public’s perception of these issues, and both Neugebager and Perkins were able to speak with the aid of their experiences on the political and governing side of the issue. While it would have been helpful if the panel had included some non-Christian participants to broaden its cultural perspective, the panel was still able to dig into the importance of religious liberty as a political and cultural issue. A follow-up speech by Naghmeh Abedini, wife of imprisoned pastor Saeed Abedini, was a poignant capstone for the panel that brought the issue of religious liberty into focus on the global scale.
The speeches, however, were an ongoing problem for the event. This was as much due to the drama accompanying some of the speeches as it was due to the speeches themselves. Jeb Bush’s speech is the biggest and most obvious example. When it was announced that several Tea Party activists were planning to walk out of the former governor’s speech, Bush’s supporters organized buses to bring in supporters from downtown DC to counter the walkout and, hopefully, flood the CPAC straw poll. While the effort didn’t pay off for the straw poll, it certainly paid off for his speech: it was the only time in the day where mentions of the former governor’s name elicited more cheers than boos, almost enough support to drown out the hecklers shouting at him from the crowd.
As much as the speeches were an issue for CPAC 2015, the lack of certain speeches also became a big issue at the end of the conference. On Saturday toward the end of the conference, two prominent speeches were scheduled with the actual speakers “To Be Announced.” In past years, this speech has served as the rallying cry for the event and a last chance to rev up the crowd before the end of the conference. As the day progressed, however, the schedule became condensed, and the first TBA slot was quickly passed up in favor of announcing the CPAC Straw Poll results early.
What followed constituted the end of the convention, and it was… well, different. I’ll let my tweets explain.
— David Giffin (@D_Giffin) February 28, 2015
— David Giffin (@D_Giffin) February 28, 2015
At the time, I was convinced that this was a result of some mistake that led the ACU to botch the scheduled speech, and it’s likely that this may have still been the case. However, when I asked ACU Chairman Matt Schlapp about the change during the press briefing at the end of CPAC, he said that it was intentional. “Our thinking evolved on this.” According to Schlapp, the change that was meant to be in line with CPAC 2015’s broader format changes that focused on the activists and attendees. While the event staff had been trying to finalize a speaker earlier in the weekend, they ultimately did away with the speech in order to try something different that didn’t rely on a speaker’s star power.
If we take Mr. Schlapp’s answer to be the truth (again, it’s still possible that they are just covering for an internal mistake), then a lot of the other rocky aspects of CPAC this year–highlighted by the schedule changes for speeches, the added dead spots in the main hall’s schedule while breakout panels were taking place, and the failure to fill the TBA speaker slots–could be explained as growing pains rather than organizational failures. CPAC had, as I indicated in my previous review piece, become a sort of conservative Superbowl for big-name speakers, activist groups, and media organizations looking for political content. If the ACU decided that its original vision for CPAC had become lost, then finding a way to restore at least a portion of the focus on activisim and training grassroots-level conservatives would be a big issue. Those changes would, however, lead to some rocky moments and some frustration on the part of the attendeeds, as the final program for the event demonstrated in spades.
In all, CPAC 2015 distinguished itself as unique among recent CPAC conferences. While that uniqueness was not always for good reasons, there were a lot of strong moments that marked a positive change from last year’s event. Like conservatism has adapted over the past year, CPAC’s changes mark a transformation that is trying to bring both conservative leaders and members of the base into a more culturally relevant, socially aware, and politically competitive position. As the ACU plans for CPAC 2016, it will need to carefully examine the lessons taken from this year’s event to see what worked (or didn’t work) and decide how to move forward. In the meantime, we can look forward for more positive changes to come in CPAC’s future.