CPAC’s Big Tent For The 80%

I must confess that when asked to speak at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), I was reminded of Tom Lehrer’s classic satirical song, “National Brotherhood Week,” which goes: “Step up and shake the hand of someone you can’t stand. You can tolerate him if you try.”

Yes, it’s time for CPAC again, when thousands of super-motivated conservatives—and a burgeoning contingent of committed libertarians—gather for three days of networking, speeches, and debate as they attempt to channel their inner Ronald Reagan. Beyond the red-white-and-blue ties and hats, Republican presidential hopefuls will jockey for their 15 minutes on C-Span, dirty laundry will be aired, the media will hype up conservative infighting, and libertarians, defense hawks, and social conservatives will compete for the moral high ground. And of course, there’ll be the hotly contested pontificating, finger-pointing, and hand-wringing over who is a “true” conservative.

But, beyond the drama, there’s a there there. So, before CPAC rescinds my speaking invitation, let me clearly state: There are principles and ideas that are bigger than any one conference, movement, or party. These ideas are worth advocating not only at CPAC, but well beyond, presented to anybody who will listen. So, for all the differences within the conservative movement—and there are many—some unifying principles keep bringing attendees back, year in and year out, to this annual conclave.

The movement is best positioned as a “Big Tent” when it emphasizes a powerful principle: Voluntarily helping your neighbor is always preferable to mandating a government program to do it for you. Conservatives must remember that, fundamentally, they fight for economic opportunity, individual liberty, and tearing down government-barriers to all of the above. It may seem an obvious point, but it’s too often ignored. Ignoring it is dangerous.

When asked, “For what principle would you fall on your sword,” conservatives need a coherent, compelling answer—one that doesn’t resort to mealy-mouthed appeals to “economic fairness,”  “social justice,” or any other empty catchphrases progressives like to toss out.  True fairness and justice need no code-word modifiers. But we must communicate those ideals to those who don’t see eye-to-eye with us on many fronts.

Yes, we all have our niche issues and pet causes, but those should never let us lose sight of the big picture. Too much is at stake. Markets can fail. That is to say, people can fail. But government fails more.  Whether you learned it from Sunday school or reading Public Choice economics, our own fallibility affects our collective decision-making. But people can also succeed, while ham-fisted government force as a solution to every problem fails every time. And in fighting that, we can all agree.

Which brings me back to Ronald Reagan, who would tell his chief of staff, James Baker, “I would much prefer to get 80 percent of what I want than to go off the cliff with the flag flying.” So whatever your 20 percent might be—whether abortion, gay marriage, military force reductions, carbon taxes, net neutrality, national flood insurance, or whatever—that 80 percent is still powerful stuff.

It begins with a focus on economic liberty—for the individual, the family, and the risk-taking entrepreneur. It means limiting the power of the state over our lives. And I mean every aspect of it, from the Pentagon to the Department of Education to the alphabet soup of ever-expanding agencies—DEA, NSA, EPA, NRLB, DOL, and … well, you get the idea.

At CPAC, I will keep that focus in mind, when I participate in a panel discussion on the future. Our ostensible topic is: “After Obama, Day 1:  What Are the Big Alternative Ideas Conservatives Should Present as Obama’s Term Ends?” My panel is a disparate bunch, yet, I expect we have far more in common than not. And I’m certain we all agree that the last thing we want is to form a circular firing squad, lest we’re back in three years posing the question: “After Hillary, Day One: What do we do now?”

So, as we gather for CPAC this week, make it worthwhile. Debate. Discuss. Meet new people. You may have some meetings of minds or some strong disagreements. But stay focused. And above all, have fun and make the most of it, for as Tom Lehrer also sang: “It’s only for a week, so have no fear. Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year!”