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It’s that time of year again. Pundits, pollsters and lobbyists are gathering in the nation’s capital to tell conservative activists how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

The Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, is meeting in Washington, D.C., this weekend to hear well-known political leaders like Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich talk about prospects for electoral victories in 2010. This is an annual event dating back to 1974, and I have been there as a speaker myself a few times. But CPAC 2010 is different.

This year, the Beltway leaders of conservatism are racing hard to catch up with a parade they did not launch and cannot control. Across America, grass-roots patriots and anti-Obama protests have changed the political landscape in ways conservatism’s entrenched Beltway Politburo did not anticipate.

The small Beltway Politburo that runs CPAC is worried. They are witnessing a growing conservative populism that owes its strength to ordinary people who have “had enough,” not to policy wonks and lobbyists who must work at the margins of political compromise. The new citizen activists take their moral bearing from the Constitution, not from pollsters and focus groups.

Concerned about the flow of illegal aliens over our border? Don’t miss Tom Tancredo’s book, “In Mortal Danger: The Battle for America’s Border and Security”

Thus, it was predictable that conservatism’s leading beltway Mafioso chose the week of CPAC to release the newly minted Mount Vernon Statement, a consensus document aimed at updating the landmark Sharon Statement of 1960. The justly famous Sharon Statement, midwifed by William F. Buckley Jr., was an eloquent synthesis of principles and policy imperatives, similar in tone to Barry Goldwater’s 1959 classic, “Conscience of a Conservative.” In contrast, the Mount Vernon Statement calls for a reaffirmation of America’s founding principles, but it is largely silent about policy solutions to our most pressing problems.

There is also a telling irony in the political circumstances that gave rise to the two manifestos 50 years apart. The 1960 manifesto was bold and fresh, but the 2010 manifesto is timid and deliberately ambiguous on some key issues. Why is that? Has political success dulled conservatism’s cutting edge, or is the Mount Vernon Statement a failed attempt to find consensus where there is none?

On both domestic policy and national security, the 1960 Sharon Statement threw down the gauntlet. It was vigorously anti-communist when “détente” was all the rage. In its unapologetic stridency, it foretold the rise of Ronald Reagan, a leader who was unafraid to articulate both sound principles and radical policies.

Now, 50 years later, conservatism can draw 4,000 activists to Washington, D.C., in the middle of winter to celebrate successes and debate policy strategies. But instead of building on the consensus that already exists on key issues, the Beltway Politburo strives to demonstrate their superior cleverness by undermining the grass-roots consensus. On two key issues, CPAC offered detours and blind alleys, not leadership.

At CPAC, activists come together to talk, debate, argue, plot and “build new coalitions.” They celebrate famous victories and analyze painful defeats. But in 2010, there is a new urgency at CPAC. America is in peril as serious as any time in our history. By almost any measure, the nation is in worse shape than 50 years ago when modern conservatism was born. The question that haunts the halls of CPAC 2010 is: Are conservatism’s new leaders up to this challenge?

The greatest threat in 1960 was international – how to deal with the threat of Soviet communism and the “missile gap” – and anti-communism was the unifying force among conservatives. Today, by contrast, the question of how to respond to the threat from radical Islam got barely a mention in CPAC forums. Indeed, as columnist Michelle Malkin has pointed out, some of CPAC’s leaders have voiced support for Obama’s insane policy of treating captured terrorists like ordinary criminals with full Miranda rights. This may be popular on K Street, but it does not sit well on Main Street.

The best example of how CPAC 2010 has failed the conservative movement is CPAC’s attempt to redefine (sabotage would be a more accurate term) the potent issues of illegal immigration and border security. Whereas grass-roots conservatives and millions of 912 patriots – along with 80 percent of the American people – understand the need for border security as a precondition for immigration reform, CPAC board member Grover Norquist is busy launching a new project in support of the Obama administration’s plan to grant another amnesty to 20 million illegal aliens. Neither border control nor immigration enforcement was included as a topic for any of the CPAC general sessions.

It is exceedingly odd that at the very moment everyone else is declaring the Democrats’ amnesty plan dead in the water, CPAC leader Grover Norquist and a handful of Republican lobbyists are conspiring to resuscitate it. It’s as though the pilots of an airplane headed to Houston decided instead to take the aircraft to Havana. But instead of a hijacking, conservatism’s Beltway Politburo calls it a strategic partnership with Latino activists.

What all this tells us is that it is not only the Republican Party that is suffering an identity crisis. So is conservatism.

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