Don't Go to CPAC, Conservatives

Josh Barro is the lead writer for the Ticker, Bloomberg View's blog on economics, finance and politics. His primary areas of interest include tax and fiscal policy, state and local government, and planning and land use.
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The Conservative Political Action Conference starts tomorrow, and the gay conservative group GOProud won't be present, after being banned from co-sponsoring in 2012. But one group that will be a co-sponsor is the press watchdog group Accuracy in Media. Its president, Cliff Kincaid, has some opinions about how the conference should go: He wrote a column last week arguing that "CPAC should be sponsoring a panel on the dangers of the homosexual movement and why some of its members seem prone to violence, terror, and treason."

Kincaid argues that the U.S. made a mistake by decriminalizing sodomy, as this allowed gays to organize in public. As a result, "Today, this monster wants to impose itself on our children in the schools and even the Boy Scouts of America." He also argues that homosexuality and Marxism are closely linked, and that the case of Bradley Manning, the Army private who gave classified material to WikiLeaks, demonstrates that gays are predisposed toward treason.

The Kincaid article gives pretty clear guidance about what is and is not allowed inside CPAC's ideological tent. Opposing a federal marriage amendment and supporting gays in the military, as GOProud does, will get you booted. But favoring the recriminalization of sodomy and advancing the notion that there is a homosexual-Marxist conspiracy is A-OK.

Like the exclusion of GOProud (and of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie), Kincaid's column has professional conservatives groaning. National Review's Jonah Goldberg lamented the fact that Kincaid's column isn't a parody and Tweeted sarcastically, "I can't believe that Kincaid guy didn't mention that over 4,000 gays didn't report for work on 9/11!!!!" Ryan Ellis, who is Grover Norquist's top lieutenant on federal tax issues, called the Kincaid column "one big reason why I don't want to go to CPAC."

I have a suggestion for conservatives such as Ellis who are exasperated with CPAC's choices this year: Don't go.

Really, you don't have to go. CPAC is not as important as the news media often makes it out to be. Its attendees are largely college Republicans and grumpy retirees: the sort of people with the time and inclination to spend a couple of weekdays listening to stump speeches at a conference hotel outside Washington.

I was on a fiscal policy panel at CPAC three years ago, and it was easily the dumbest, most poorly organized panel discussion I've ever been involved in. One of my co-panelists, who was over 65, did a rap about the federal budget (and not a good one). Another ranted for eight minutes about how the Internal Revenue Service audits too many people. After we were done presenting, the audience asked a bunch of dumb questions. This was not a discussion that helped to shape the future of conservative fiscal policy, and any of us could have skipped it without consequence.

The conference is a major opportunity for would-be presidential candidates to get national attention. Yet that attention is valuable not because of who is in the room but because the big speeches, or at least their highlights, are televised and shared on the Web. If the things you plan to do at CPAC won't be televised, you can afford to skip it.

I am not suggesting that conservative operatives who support gay rights (or who, like Ellis, are socially conservative but still have no patience for Kincaid) have an obligation to walk away from the Republican Party or the conservative movement. We all have a variety of issues that matter to us and we need to form coalitions with people who disagree with us, even on issues of importance.

But I do think they have an obligation to pick some battles and define some statements and positions, like advocating the recriminalization of sodomy, as beyond the pale. And I think they have an obligation to put pressure on swayable institutions like CPAC, which would be no more relevant than any regional Tea Party conference were it not for the participation of establishment conservative organizations.

It's heartening that so many Republican operatives and appointees signed an amicus brief arguing that there is a constitutional right to gay marriage. But it doesn't mean much to "support" gay rights if you won't stand up to fellow conservatives who oppose even the most basic gay right: the right to not be jailed for being gay. CPAC provides a good opportunity to do so, by skipping out.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.