Part of the learning experience - some might call it indoctrination - of the New Conservatives, both from the UK and USA, is attendance at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. This event began life in 1973, co-founded by the American Conservative Union, who now host the event, and Young Americans for Freedom, the latter being a chapter affiliate of the Young America’s Foundation.
In the 1980s, CPAC welcomed speakers like Ronald Reagan, but nowadays it is notorious for hostility to gays, and hostility to moderates. The runner-up in last year’s straw poll, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, compared unionised workers to Islamic terrorists. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was roundly booed when he was introduced to the gathering; he has advocated a path to citizenship for currently illegal immigrants.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who worked with Barack Obama after recent storms battered the USA’s north-east coast, and later gave his thanks to the President for his assistance, came a lowly tenth in the straw poll last year: working with Democrats, which Reagan did as a matter of routine, is now frowned upon at CPAC. Working with Obama is not merely frowned upon, it is considered traitorous.
The level of intolerance towards anyone not considered sufficiently Conservative can be seen in the account of one cable news host who visited CPAC not long ago. Most voters across the USA still get their news from mainstream broadcasters like ABC, NBC and CBS, but the three major cable news networks make a significant contribution, partly due to two of them being perceived as highly partisan.
First in the field, CNN is regarded as centrist, which automatically draws hostility from Conservatives. Fox News Channel claims not to be right-leaning, but its record of blatant support for the GOP, and the Tea Party Movement, suggests otherwise. FNC is the favoured broadcaster of true Conservatives. Recent entrant MSNBC is reviled by Conservatives for employing openly liberal hosts.
One MSNBC host with whom Conservatives have a serious problem is Rachel Maddow, who fronts the channel’s 9pm Eastern Time weekday slot. Ms Maddow is popular, smart, articulate, assertive, liberal … and she is gay. Her reception at CPAC is instructive: she recalled the experience in conversation with Jay Leno.
“I went one year … I had one guy scream at me on an escalator. It got spit all over my face. But aside from that, people were very nice … They had made doormats with MSNBC hosts on the doormats, which I thought was kind of awesome. Merchandising for us! Thank you!” She made light of being spat on, which is not particularly welcoming.
Ms Maddow also made a very telling observation on CPAC, and the state of Conservative politics across the USA: “Since Bush and Cheney, [Republicans] have been in this process of purifying, and purifying and purifying, and kicking people out who aren't absolutely with them on everything. And you can only do that for so long before it's just you standing alone in the room being very pure”.
That sums up CPAC, where those Republicans not judged to be sufficiently pure are not welcome: Chris Christie was not invited to speak in 2013. This was because “he criticized House Speaker John Boehner and GOP caucus politics during the debate over bringing the Hurricane Sandy relief bill to the floor”. Also, American Conservative Union head Al Cardenas “is allied with [Mitt] Romney, whose backers were enraged by Christie’s praise of President Barack Obama’s performance right after Hurricane Sandy”. How would CPAC treat Reagan now?
From Florida, GOP pundit Rick Wilson said of Christie “You have a guy who stung the base very badly in the closing days of the 2012 election and who last week says he agrees with Cuomo 98 percent of the time. He’s done some fine work in New Jersey, but he’s also handled relationships with the base with what a lot of conservatives view as contempt. On guns, global warming and a host of other issues, he’s not exactly asking for an invitation to the dance”. That’s despite Christie having a 74% satisfaction rating at the time.
Voter opinion, like that of Christie, cuts little ice at CPAC. Those invited to speak must take the approved line on guns - being able to own these is not negotiable, and to most US Conservatives, the Second Amendment is inviolable - and global warming, which for all out there on the right is not happening, even slightly.
This lack of tolerance feeds through into the GOP intransigence towards Barack Obama, which manifests itself in the US Congress, both in the Senate and House of Representatives. And it feeds through to the New Conservatives in Britain. Those who preach in the name of Ronald Reagan might not have considered him pure enough to allow into their ever-shrinking tent.