How conservative is the Conservative Political Action Conference? Last week's annual meeting raised the question in several ways. First, Ron Paul won the annual presidential preference straw poll. Though he got only 30% of the vote, that still left him well ahead of his nearest rival, Mitt Romney, who got just 23%. Second, many annual participants boycotted this year's gathering because organizers had invited a new gay Republican group, GOProud, to take part in the event. The gesture was consistent with recent attempts to broaden the event's appeal. Just last year, the John Birch Society, a group once excommunicated from the conservative mainstream by William F. Buckley, was admitted as a co-sponsor of the conference. I don't know if anyone bolted when the Birchers arrived, but their appearance seems like further proof that American conservatism is in a perhaps paradoxical state of flux.
Paul's persistent popularity suggests that many of the Tea Partiers who participate in CPAC retain their original opposition to the War on Terror in the midst of Republican infighting over possible cuts in defense spending. Along with the inclusion of GOProud (itself described as "pro-defense"), it also suggests that the conservative movement -- or this segment of it -- is acquiring a more libertarian character. But the boycott of CPAC by various Christian Right groups hints of a possible schism within the larger movement, the long promised split of libertarians from "social issue" moralists. Some people clearly want to force a showdown on gay rights. Even Sarah Palin has come in for criticism from the theocrats and homophobes for affirming GOProud's right to participate in the conference. This looks like a doomed campaign. The Christian Right was eventually going to force a choice between "traditional values" and "freedom." If that time has come now, I expect most conservatives, being Americans, to choose "freedom." That still leaves the question of which side would be the "real" conservatives, or simply more conservative. On economic issues there probably won't be much difference between them. If anything, some on the Christian Right might prove more "liberal" on such issues than their libertarian rivals. But if both sides would largely agree on economic issues, then those can't define conservatism if the movement splits and each side declares itself the "real" conservatives. The theocrats and homophobes would certainly commit themselves to the conservation of traditional values, while the other side would end up sounding abstract by comparison, having little to conserve, I imagine, beside "liberty." Of course, some observers might have no problem declaring both groups conservative if they assume that conservatism exists primarily in the critical eye of the progressive or the liberal. Among conservatives themselves, I expect a "there can be only one" mentality to prevail. As ideologues, it's in their nature to seek out heresy in their midst and purge it. On the other hand, it's been argued that true conservatism is the opposite of ideology, preferring moderation to extremism and experience to abstraction. If that's so, then in a solomonic way the group that proves more conservative may be the one that claims less loudly to be the true conservatives.