With a record-breaking 10,000 in attendance, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) went off flawlessly. But behind the scenes, tempers flared.
“Mike Huckabee was the first out of the box,” Dave Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, whose foundation runs CPAC, tells Newsmax. “He complained that these people were too interested in the economy, that they were too libertarian, that they weren’t social conservatives enough.”
Huckabee made his comments on Fox News based on the results of a straw poll that asked participants to say whom they would vote for in the next presidential election and which political goals are most important to them.
With only 2,395 voting in the straw poll, Texas Congressman Ron Paul won with 31 percent of the vote. Huckabee received only 4 percent. Eighty percent said that, in contrast to promoting national security or traditional values, their biggest concern is enhancing individual freedom by reducing the size of the government.
“The fact is that Mike has never done very well in these straw polls,” says Keene, noting that the poll is obviously not scientific. Since a presidential election is not looming, possible candidates did not rally their supporters to vote, but backers of Rep. Paul did organize support for him.
Keene notes that without marshaling support, Mitt Romney came in second with 22 percent of the vote.
Beyond the straw poll controversies, “You had Frank Gaffney complaining that nobody talked enough about national defense and the war on terrorism,” Keene says. Referring to a Washington Times Op-Ed by Gaffney, the president of the Center for Security Policy, Keene asks, “What about Liz Cheney and Dick Cheney?”
Keene says talk-show host Mark Levin on his show attacked Glenn Beck because Beck spoke critically of Republicans in his closing speech at CPAC.
“You ever listen to Mark Levin? What’s that all about?” Keene says, pointing out that Levin regularly attacks Republicans.
Meanwhile, a participant in a panel discussion virulently attacked CPAC for allowing gay conservatives to be represented by GOProud as one of the conference’s 96 co-sponsors.
“Some kid from Young Americans for Freedom got up, and he had been on this two-minute panel that was supposed to talk about what it is that they have accomplished,” Keene recalls. “And he decided he’d do that instead. Fine. That’s all right. He denounced Ron Paul’s people and he denounced the gays. And none of that had any relevance to anything.”
Keene sees the divergent views as being emblematic of the conservative movement and a sign of its health.
“I tell people that when the conservative movement started and three people gathered outside a phone booth, the first thing they did was get in an argument,” he says. “Because that’s the way conservatives are. Then they decide at the end of the day, we may disagree on some things but we agree on a lot more, and why don’t we go take out the liberals? That’s been the thrust of the movement.”
That approach goes back to Frank Meyer, a pillar of the movement beginning in the early 1950s.
“Frank was the guy who said we’ve got national defense conservatives, we’ve got libertarian and economic conservatives, and we’ve got social conservatives,” Keene says. “And they all have these differences, but our job is to keep them all together. And I think CPAC really is a tribute to that.”
Keene notes that columnist David Frum insisted that columnist Robert Novak should be thrown out of the conservative movement because he was against the war in Iraq.
“Once you start down that road, there is no end,” Keene says. “People forget this now, but if you go back to the CPAC record in the early 1970s, the conservative movement was almost by consensus pro-choice. Remember Ronald Reagan was pro-choice; Barry Goldwater was pro-choice.”
CPAC’s inclusive policy reflects Keene’s personality. While a hard-core conservative, Keene, who has headed the ACU since 1984, is friends with liberals like former ABC correspondent Sam Donaldson, former New York Times reporter Adam Clymer, and Bloomberg’s Al Hunt.
“The difference between the left as I see it, particularly the ideological left, and the right, is that the left doesn’t brook any differences of opinion,” Keene says. “They know exactly what the world is like, and exactly what their position is, and they really don’t tolerate much in the way of deviance.”
In civilized society, “You can disagree with people without throttling them,” Keene says. “That is not to say there aren’t some people I would like to throttle. But I find it both intellectually exciting that not every conservative agrees about everything, and I find it a sign of the strength of the movement. And also the reason we don’t let anybody vote anybody else off the island is because I’d be the first to go.”
Indeed, says Keene, who becomes president of the National Rifle Association in May of next year, in addition to heading the ACU, “I think the complaints about who is represented at CPAC are a sign of the success of the conference.”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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