At CPAC, Republicans Faced a Bigger Challenge than Trump: Deciding Who They Are | Opinion

For decades, the Conservative Political Action Conference was a beehive of activity centered around Ronald Reagan's unique brand of conservatism. Whether he was a presidential candidate or America's chief executive, his agenda and CPAC's were seemingly one.

That thrust continued even through his declining years, as part of the effort to establish his legacy. Now this conference of activists, which has its roots in the Goldwater Era and "survived" the two Bush interregna, faces the challenge of what to do next.

Conservatism as it exists in the American body politic is split. This is not new. It has been that way since the modern movement arose in the aftermath of World War II. Even in the Reagan years, the social conservatives who cared primarily about the life issue clashed with economic conservatives and those with a libertarian bent to their thinking, as they all vied for the president's attention.

Conflicts between national security conservatives, who wanted a strong national defense at home as well as abroad, and limited government conservatives seeking to shrink the size, scope, and power of the federal government were well known. And the fight between those loyal to Reagan and those who would have from 1979 forward preferred to see control of the executive branch in the hands of George Herbert Walker Bush was legendary.

All that is gone. Reagan and Reaganism hover over the conference like an ever-present reminder of past glory. Indeed, signs advertising a new book edited by American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp consisting of a compendium of the speeches the former president made at CPAC are seemingly omnipresent.

Nonetheless, things have moved on. The audience and the issues under consideration in the break out and general sessions are very much in the mold of Trump. "The Donald," as he was known in his pre-presidential days, has put his stamp firmly on the conference, while speaker after speaker amplified key messages that are very much part of his agenda.

It is doubtful, for example, that the word "Socialism" has been enunciated from the podium with such fervor at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The rise of Nancy Pelosi, Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez within the Democratic Party has put it out in front of the national debate. In the Reagan era, the pushback might have occurred with a wink and a smile and a gentle nudge recognizing after all that equality of result (a primary objective of socialism) is an unnatural state. Now it's used a rallying cry intended to instill fear of what might be the result should AOC and company win control of the Congress and Executive Branch in the next election.

It's not that fear is the only political arrow left in the conservative quiver, but it is a powerful motivator in the age of the Internet, where information flows in nanoseconds to more people that Reagan probably reached in all his televised speeches to the nation while president. It's also the nadir of the dilution of conservative principles that began as soon as he left the White House. His successors, up until Obama, all at least pretended to be conservative while growing the government and pushing for spending increases producing deficits that would not have been possible during the either Reagan term—a time when, remember, the national media used to call the ballooning deficit one of the greatest crises the nation faced.

The other problem, one that conservatives have wrestled with since 1989, is the way in which, to a large extent, Reagan accomplished his goals. The right side won the Cold War without firing a shot, the American economy came roaring back, and the nation's pride was restored, lifted out of the malaise into which it sank during Jimmy Carter's presidency—all 40 years ago. The need to assemble a new slate of ideas for what is a fundamentally different world has not, to any practical sense, been accomplished.
It is at gatherings like CPAC where such things occur.

For all the bombast and red meat thrown at the activists who attend from around the country and around the globe, there are seeds of new ideas and amplifications of those which brought the movement electoral success several times before. Newt Gingrich accomplished some of it with his Contract with America in 1994 but no one, not even Trump, has come as close yet.

There are reasons for this—principally that Reagan and Gingrich operated from inside the established political order as a means of changing it. Trump, who ran against "the swamp," is intent on smashing it.
The struggle he picked may be the harder one. The Soviet Union, after all, only had nuclear weapons at its disposal. The entrenched political establishment, with all that entails, has so many more creative and destructive implements available. This last point is something the speakers and attendees at CPAC 2019 are aware of but have not yet figured out how to deal with effectively.

Newsweek contributing editor Peter Roff has written extensively about politics and the American experience for U.S. News and World Report, United Press International, and other publications.
He can be reached by email at Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​