The Reagan Revolution was born in 1974 at the first Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and died at CPAC 2018.
Ronald Reagan’s vision of a “new” Republican party outlined in his 1977 CPAC speech is now destroyed; and his warnings articulated in his 1981 CPAC speech about pitting people, classes, and institutions against one another has gone unheeded by the national GOP.
For traditional conservatives, like myself, what transpired at CPAC 2018 was a sad commentary on the state of the national GOP and the conservative movement.
CPAC began in 1974 as the most important gathering of conservative policy wonks, strategists, and activists. At the time, President Nixon was mired in the Watergate scandal and there were questions whether the GOP would remain a viable political party, or even survive the 1974 mid-term elections. Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, headlined the first conference. His inspirational message (where he first invoked “a shining city on a hill”) gave hope to the conferees; and following his address, the Reagan revolution was born.
After Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976, Reagan returned to CPAC (February 6, 1977) to present his vision of the future of the conservative movement. (It was the first CPAC I attended as a then wide-eyed high schooler from then solidly Republican, Bergen County.) Reagan’s message was clear: To become a majority party, the movement needed to be welcoming and not be bound by ideological rigidity.
“The new Republican Party I envision will not be, and cannot be, one limited to the country club, big business image that, for reasons both fair and unfair, it is burdened with today.” Instead, the party and the movement, Reagan argued, “must be open, for the man and woman in the factories, for the farmer, for the cop on the beat and the millions of Americans who may never have thought of joining our party before.”
But look how far we have come.
- Ian Walters, CPAC’s Communications Director said at Friday’s CPAC Reagan dinner: “We elected Mike Steele as (RNC) chairman because he was a black guy,” and “That was the wrong thing to do.”
- Syndicated columnist, Mona Charen, who offered a dissenting view regarding the GOP’s treatment of women, was literally booed off the stage and escorted out of the room for her own safety;
- NRA President Wayne LaPierre was given a prime speaking spot (just before Vice President Pence’s speech) and delivered a long rambling defense of the 2nd Amendment (that included attacks on the intelligence communities and fears that the nation was becoming a “growing socialist state.”)
- Two European nationalist politicians, Marion Le Pen and Nigel Farage, inexplicably received speaking invitations– offending most of the CPAC attendees.
Sadly, CPAC 2018 gave the incorrect impression that the modern conservative movement is solely pre-occupied with guns, insensitive to women, unwelcoming of minorities, embraces far-right nationalist politicians, and derides our institutions (including FBI and intelligence agencies.)
Reagan would be shocked. As a center-right leader, I was appalled.
In his 1977 speech, Reagan declared, “I do not view the new revitalized Republican Party as one based on a principle of exclusion.” Nor is the “conservative movement the exclusive property of conservative activists.” I say this: the conservative movement is neither the exclusive property of the ACU nor of its chairman, Matt Schlapp.
Addressing CPAC in 1981 for the first time as President, Ronald Reagan noted that his victory was the victory of conservative ideals; but sustaining these victories, “will not be achieved or will it be served, by those who engage in political claptrap or false promises. It will not be achieved by those who set people against people, class against class, or institution against institution.”
Is there a place for differences in the current national GOP or conservative movement? It doesn’t seem so. Perhaps that’s the reason why more than 24 GOP House members including many House Committee chairs, such as Jeb Hensarling (TX-5), Ed Royce (CA-39), Bob Goodlatte (VA-6), Trey Gowdy (SC-4), and Rodney Frelinghuysen (NJ-11), have elected to retire and not seek re-election; and why dedicated hard-working suburban Blue State suburban incumbents like Rep. Leonard Lance (NJ-7) and Tom MacArthur (NJ-3) are in tight re-election campaigns.
Yes, issues like gun ownership, immigration reform, and border security, engender passion and debate. But the tone of CPAC 2018 was combative and angry- pitting people against people, class against class, and institution against institutions. To Reagan, that was no way to promote a movement; and no way to maintain a majority political party.
In failing to heed Reagan’s warnings, CPAC 2018 destroyed the Reagan legacy. Here’s hoping, however, that the national GOP learns from CPAC 2018’s mistakes.