Veteran media strategist and best-selling author Craig Shirley tells Newsmax that the Conservative Political Action Conference has “blurred the distinction” between the conservative movement and the rest of the Republican Party.
He also says it was a “mistake” for CPAC not to invite New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to its gathering this year, and disagrees with the assertion that the GOP has now turned so far to the right that Ronald Reagan couldn’t win the party’s presidential nomination.
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Shirley, a veteran of numerous political campaigns, is president and CEO of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs. He wrote the best-sellers “Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America,” and “Reagan's Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All.” His third book, “December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World,” is a New York Times best-seller.
Shirley recently wrote a Townhall.com editorial critical of CPAC and its choice of people invited to its gathering, saying it’s no longer strictly a convention of the conservative movement.
In an exclusive interview with Newsmax TV, he was asked when he first noticed the shift.
“I can tell you exactly when I first noticed it and started thinking about it,” he says.
“The movement had always been, as I wrote, separate and apart from the Republican Party going back to the ‘50s, and even when Reagan was president, the conservative movement was separate and apart from the Republican Party, although he was head of both for argument’s sake.
“It was in ’94 or ’95, right around there, which was the first time the chairman of the National Republican Committee began speaking at CPAC — at that time it was Haley Barbour — and it may [have been] a mistake because if it became more than just an occasional thing there could be a blurring of the distinction between the two, between the movement and the Republican Party.
“As a matter of a fact they have since institutionalized it, so that the chairman of the Republican National Committee, regardless of what his ideology is, speaks at CPAC every year. That started about 20 years ago, the blurring of the distinction between the two, and now if you see commentators talking about CPAC they talk about it as if it were a Republican Party function rather than a conservative movement function.”
Shirley insists his criticism does not violate “Reagan’s 11th Commandment.”
“I worked for President Reagan and observed his interpretation of the 11th Commandment, which he got from the chairman of the Republican Party in California many years ago: “Thou shalt not attack a fellow Republican.” It meant you didn’t attack them personally. You didn’t attack their patriotism, their fidelity or their sobriety,” Shirley says.
“But you could engage in vigorous philosophical debates with Republicans, as he did in 1976 when he was challenging Gerald Ford for the Republican Party nomination, as he did in 1980 when he was challenging George Bush for the nomination, as he did all of his adult life in articulating a conservative philosophy in which he went up against elements of the Republican establishment, and in fact when he was president he was debating elements of the Republican establishment.
“The 11th Commandment does not apply here. And I’m not very sophisticated about these things but on Townhall [the editorial has] gotten over 1,000 likes and my sons tell me that’s pretty good.”
Asked if he thinks there is any validity to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s claim that Reagan would not be able to get nominated for president because the GOP has become too right- wing, Shirley responds: “I don’t believe there’s any validity at all.
“I don’t think he has the correct perspective on what’s wrong with the Republican Party. If anything is wrong, it’s become too insider. The party has nominated men of the inside and has lost, instead of nominating a popular outsider like Ronald Reagan, who was able to wage a straight forward, clean, principled campaign against the establishment.”
One “outsider” right now might be Chris Christie, and not inviting him to CPAC “was a mistake because that appears to be a punishment to Christie for too closely aligning himself with President Barack Obama in the fall of last year,” Shirley tells Newsmax.
As for who best represents that outside right now in conservative movement, Shirley observes “I would say, just thinking among the senators and congressman, probably Rand Paul is the best example of the outsider who is in the federal government.
“In the state governments, there are a number of good people. There’s Rick Perry, there’s John Kasich, there are a lot of good governors. And in lesser offices, Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia, who’s running for governor, is maybe one of the best examples of somebody who not only understands the argument, but understands the insiders versus the outsiders.”
Shirley has also written that it’s more accurate to compare Bushism to Obamaism than Bushism to Reaganism.
“I’m basing that on both 41 [George H.W. Bush] and 43 [George W. Bush],” Shirley says.
“Both of them engaged in massive expansions of government. Both engaged in foreign adventures that traditional conservatism would be wary of. Both increased federal spending exponentially, and so both of them did do things that were liberal establishment in nature in the same way that President Obama’s done liberal establishment things – more spending, more regulation, more bureaucracies.
“The establishment then does more business with the federal government, whether it’s the banks, contractors, military contractors, or whoever. So the Bushes pursued, essentially, the same big government policies that President Obama did and which Ronald Reagan didn’t.”
Asked if it’s fair to lump Jeb Bush together with both Georges,” Shirley says: “He is the one who said the Republicans need to get over their nostalgia of Ronald Reagan. Now Ronald Reagan left office in January ’89 with a 73 percent approval rating. Both Bushes left office with approval ratings demonstrably lower. George H.W. Bush was in the 30s and George W. Bush was in the low 20s. So for my money, I’ll take the conservative who left with the 73 percent approval.
“If there’s any nostalgia to get over, it’s over the failures of the two Bush presidencies. Instead [we should] examine why Reagan was such a successful president.”
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