Why we held the ‘Rainbow on the Right’ event at CPAC

I became the president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) two months ago, and I’m already considered a Marxist?

I’ve been asked why I have sworn off a life of right-of-center policy and fundraising work in order to promote known communist sympathizers. I’ve been asked why I’m moving so quickly to destroy CEI’s reputation. Someone even threatened to turn my own church against me.

All because we at CEI decided to hold a panel discussion at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on how to bring gays and others into the conservative movement.

It wasn’t an official event. We didn’t have the official CPAC banner in our room. As a CPAC co-sponsor, we were allowed to use a meeting room in the hotel for a function of our choice during the event. This was our function. We submitted the name of the panel in advance, as required by the American Conservative Union (ACU), which runs CPAC. And we made sure the name — “Rainbow on the Right: Growing the Coalition, Bringing Tolerance out of the Closet” — left no doubt as to the intent of our program. To the ACU’s credit, ACU officials allowed our event to go forward.

Why did we do it? Why did an organization that promotes free markets seemingly venture into social policy? Because we don’t see it as social policy. Because the exclusion of the gay conservative group GOProud from CPAC reflects a market failure and a continuing threat to free-market policies — a market failure because the marketplace of ideas is not free if legitimate aspirants are excluded, and a continuing threat because the political leaders most likely to support our policies cannot win unless we find ways to communicate with gays, women, Hispanics and others. Yes, CEI remains focused on energy and economic issues, but we’re also part of the broader center-right movement. And if we’re to achieve economic liberty, we need a much bigger tent.

Others at CPAC appeared ready to tackle immigration and women’s issues, and we have some history on this — we co-sponsored a celebration with GOProud and the late Andrew Breitbart during the 2011 CPAC. Plus, when it comes to discrimination, silence is assent. To accept GOProud’s exclusion from CPAC would be to condone it and to turn our backs on reliable allies.

The panel was measured and thoughtful and underscored the point that tolerance does not equal affirmation. As Jimmy LaSalvia, GOProud’s executive director and co-founder, explained, one can oppose gay marriage for principled reasons without being a homophobe. Ann Coulter, for example, is on the GOProud advisory board but opposes gay marriage.

Liz Mair, an online campaign specialist, laid out the grim demographic trends that Republicans and conservatives face if we can’t move past this. Jonah Goldberg and Margaret Hoover debated whether gay marriage should be up to the states (Goldberg) or an unalienable right (Hoover), and Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post said she expects the whole controversy to be over in 10 years while Goldberg warned that a rush to take sides may leave conservative voters even more disaffected than they already are.

What we learned from this experience is that the right is far more open to this kind of dialogue than most people think. Outside of those few crank emails and isolated negative columns, the response to our event was overwhelmingly positive. It was so crowded that fire marshals had to block people from entering. A competing event sponsored by the National Organization for Marriage was sparsely attended.

The right seems to realize our ideas work, but some of our attitudes needlessly turned off millions of voters last fall. Many in our movement genuinely want to find ways forward — as both our panel and the diverse panels on immigration this year demonstrated.

Fortunately for us at CEI, our brand of right-of-center thinking — true limited government and market-driven regulatory policies that will free Americans to use their imaginations to make a living and make the world a better place — is, as the kids say, trending.

That’s why this was exactly the right fight for us to join, and exactly the right time to join it.