I have attended CPAC for years, occupying a booth at "Radio Row." I have had an opportunity to interview candidates for president as well as various spokespersons for many of the political organizations.
Often it is business as usual, reduce taxes, don't touch defense spending, end abortion and make sure gays don't go near anything that represents conservatives. There were plenty of these folks at this year's CPAC, but there was a real change this time. Not only was there a smaller number of people wearing outrageous costumes (there was a Sarah Palin look alike) and hawking their organizations with strange giveaways, but also there was a real sea change in what I heard from the attendees on radio row.
There was universal agreement from everyone I spoke with that the deficit and spending must be addressed. Not one person I interviewed over two days felt that the United States could continue with its spending habits. The CPAC crowd also was united in its beliefs that the stimulus package did not work and that there could be no new money in that direction. People loved the Citizens United case and felt that they were able to win the House because of it. No one thought there should be public funding of elections. However, that is about where the agreements of the CPAC attendees ended. This year, there were much wider and divergent views on almost everything else.
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What surprised me most were the libertarians. Many of the CPAC folks felt that we should get out of Iraq and Afghanistan . In the past, some have been the standard normal pro-defense Republicans. Now they believe that not one more dollar should be spent in Afghanistan and Iraq and that the time to come home was yesterday. The reasons varied from spending too much money, to fighting wars that cannot be won, to not being the mission of the U.S. military. The second issue that took me by surprise was the willingness to cut the budget of the Pentagon.
I have been interviewing people in Washington for nine-and-a-half years and have almost never heard of a Republican who said that it was time to really look into Pentagon spending. I have heard, "Let's get rid of the $10,000 toilet seats," but I have never heard of "Let's look at weapon systems and the whole system." This was very new coming from a conservative crowd.
On health care, I heard enough about "Obamacare" to last me a lifetime. This year was a bit different in that people discussed the real need to make changes in pre-existing coverage and meaningful ways to help people purchase coverage. Some of the ideas mentioned were not that far off from proposals I heard at the Families USA conference two weeks ago. Clearly, there is some room for dialog and some crossover policies.
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What really knocked my socks off was the willingness from some of the policy advocates to means test Medicare. It was shocking. Had I brought this idea up several years ago, most of the CPAC attendees would have laughed at me. This time, they thought nothing was off the table and the idea that Donald Trump might not get a free ride with Medicare (even though he put money into the system all these years) was not unthinkable. Maybe liberals and the right have more in common than I thought.
The other shocker was GOProud. Groups such as Family Research Council pulled out of the conference because GOProud was a co-sponsor. A conservative and heterosexual friend of mine said, "Other than a few pimply faced geeks" handing out leaflets, no one cares. In fact, with the issue of "don't ask, don't tell" off the table, and one session on "traditional values," very little was said about gay people. In fact, Andrew Breitbart and Sen. Alfonse D'Amato's group on poker players co-sponsored CPAC's most well-attended party given by GOProud. The pull out of groups such as Family Research Council also had no effect on attendance that was, as usual, a sell-out crowd.
CPAC 2011 had a huge tea-party contingent with Ron Paul getting 31 percent (and winning) the presidential straw poll. Some of the tea-party folks are down the line with a social/fiscal conservative agenda, but with a view that military spending should stay the same. What is shocking to a liberal such as me, is how diverse and open so many of the CPAC crowd has become. It may begin a real dialog as to where we need to move as country instead of the very predictable divides we have seen in the last few elections.