I first covered the Conservative Political Action Conference was in 2012, back in the early days of the last Republican presidential primary, when Rick Santorum still seemed like a semi-credible option, and Ron Paul was leading his guerilla takeover of backwater local GOP executive boards. Heady with intra-party rivalries, and still deep in the throes of the Tea Party fever dream, the annual conservative hoedown was at peak l, propping up the darkest elements of the right-wing fringe.
Herman Cain was there, decrying the "gutter politics" that had exposed his habit of harassing women who weren't his wife in a keynote speech. There was a panel on "The Failure of Multiculturism: How the Pursuit of Diversity Is Weakening the American Identity," featuring two prominent white nationalists, and another on "Islamic Law in America," about the creeping scourge of sharia in US courts. The whole thing reached a frenzied peak when a wild-eyed Andrew Breitbart marched outside to go "toe-to-toe" with Occupy Wall Street protesters camped outside the venue, and had to be pulled away by security.
Three years later, a pack of CPAC attendees once again went toe-to-toe with protestors, but this time, the protesters were white nationalists, members of the neo-Confederate League of the South up to picket the conservative gathering. As the event wound down on Saturday, young activists, sporting their proudly CPAC lanyards and Stand With Rand pins, came out to confront the demonstrations, starting a chanting duel that quickly devolved into heated arguments on the sidewalk outside the convention center.
"You actually think the US should separate into different states?" one kid asked a bearded protester carrying a sign that read "Obama Hates White People...And So Does The GOP." "It's just...I mean...," the kid struggled to find the words. "It's disgusting," his companion volunteered. Across the street another blazered CPACer shook his head dejectedly. "I'm sorry about this," he told a nearby photographer. "I'm from 'Nova. We don't do that there."
Obviously, this is a reasonable reaction to any Neo-Confederate disruption, but it also hints at a tonal shift that could be detected throughout the three-day event. Once reliably cuckoo, CPAC was disarmingly relaxed—even reasonable—this year, notably lacking in the kind of internecine flame-throwing, and racist dog-whistles that have characterized the conference in the past. Two years after the Republican National Committee warned the party that it would have to be a lot nicer if it ever wanted to win another election, grassroots conservatives seem to have gotten the message.
Under new leadership, the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC, made a concerted effort to tone down the spectacle in 2015, and project a sleeker, more inclusive vibe. There were no sinister Kirk Cameron documentaries, no biting immigration tirades from Ann Coulter. Mike Huckabee, the leading evangelical prospect for 2016, didn't attend this year's conference. Rick Santorum, another Christian conservative favorite, talked mostly about foreign policy, rather than social issues—though most of the audience wandered out during his speech anyway.
Amazingly, even Sarah Palin veered away from her usual script, giving a thoughtful speech about the challenges facing veterans when they return home. " America hands over her sons and her daughters in service with the promise that they're going to be taken care of," she said. "Well we, their mothers and their fathers and their husbands and their wives, we're here to collect on the promises made. We can't wait for D.C. to fix their bureaucratic blunders. This bureaucracy is killing our vets." Then, to everyone's surprise, she proposed a series of very reasonable ways Congress could address the issue. Last year, she read her own version of Dr. Seuss.
Of course, CPAC wasn't totally devoid of the fringe. On Friday, for example, hidden-camera activist James O'Keefe hired someone to walk around his party dressed as Osama bin Laden. And in what was probably the highlight of the weekend, Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson went on an extended riff about STDs, or what he likes to call "the revenge of the hippies."
"I don't want you to come down with a debilitating disease. I don't want you to die early. You're disease-free and she's disease-free, you marry, you keep your sex right there," Robertson informed an afternoon audience. "I'm trying to help you, for crying out loud. America, if I didn't care about you, why would I bring this up?"
For the most part, though, the conference was lucid, even normal. Everywhere you looked, Republicans were talking about policy ideas and proposals that could appeal beyond the ultra-conservative grassroots activists in attendance. CPAC organizers, long resentful of the overwhelming presence of young, libertarian-minded activists at the annual confab, seemed to embrace them this year, hosting talks on issues like asset forfeiture, criminal justice reform, and digital currency.
In a marijuana legalization debate on the main stage Thursday, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who ran for president on the Libertarian ticket in 2012, gave an impassioned attack on prohibition, at one point faking a heart attack to prove some point. "Having a debate about marijuana legalization is like having a debate about whether the sun is going to come up tomorrow. The sun is going to come up. Marijuana is going to be legalized," Johnson declared, to raucous cheers. ""Conservatives ought to embrace the fact that these are people making their own decision, he added.
Democrats laughed off the idea that CPAC was broadening its appeal beyond the fringe. "If CPAC is trying to be more inclusive, they sure have a weird way of showing it," Democratic National Committee spokesman Rob Flaherty told VICE. "Its attendees loudly supported Civil Rights Act skeptic Rand Paul, gave an award to proud homophobe Phil Robertson, and once again attempted to exclude the Log Cabin Republicans. If this is what inclusivity looks like, the Republican Party should be embarrassed...and worried."
After years of demanding strict ideological purity from Republican candidates, grassroots activists at CPAC seemed to have tamed their cannibalistic impulses somewhat, making efforts to expand the movement. Even former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who took a beating from other speakers, as well as a noisy contingent of booers, managed to engage skeptics in a lively Q&A Friday. And while all of the likely 2016 candidates who spoke affirmed their opposition to same-sex marriage, gay Republicans were publicly welcomed to the conference after years of being snubbed by conference organizers.
As The Nation's Michelle Goldberg suggests, the sudden turn toward even-keeled professionalism could be problematic for Democrats, who have based their entire election strategy on the notion that Republicans are crazy extremists who hate women, gays, and poor people. That argument is less effective if conservative candidates can sound reasonable, and avoid issues that alienate those voters.
"A preoccupation with social issues destroyed us in 2012," said Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, the conservative gay rights group that was initially excluded from CPAC but eventually invited to speak on a panel. "We left out these issues in 2014," he added, "and we won everywhere. Republicans need to remember what happened in 2014, and keep that momentum going."
At this point, it's not clear how far will go in helping to rebrand the GOP. But as Republicans seek to expand the party, it's a sign that conservatives might be willing to sacrifice some of their crazier elements in order to appeal to a broader swath of voters. "I don't think the Republican Party is as in line with those louder voices as some might think— I think the trend is going well," said Armand Cortellesso, a 30-year-old activist from Polk County, Florida. "Nobody is going to listen to your economic policy if you start off by saying that everyone isn't equal in the first place."
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