Denver—The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is the premier annual right-wing confab in Washington, DC. For the last two years, they’ve also taken the show on the road, with regional CPACs held in crucial swing states such as Florida and Colorado. On Thursday, high on their candidate’s aggressive but dishonest performance in the previous night’s presidential debate, several hundred conservative activists gathered in Denver for the second annual CPAC Colorado.
The right’s newfound ebullience about the presidential election was largely overshadowed by its insecurity. Several speeches and plenary panels were largely dedicated to discussing how conservatives can reverse their ominous demographic destiny. Female, young and minority speakers repeatedly reassured the overwhelmingly older white audience that conservatism is actually the best ideology for the disadvantaged. Conservatives seem not to have considered that women and minorities may find conservative policies unappealing.
“There are men and women of color—black, brown and yellow—who share our faith, share our values…. They need to know that when we say, ‘we,’ we mean them too,” said former Representative Artur Davis (D-AL). In what was a rare, albeit only implicit, admission—that the GOP’s royalist economic agenda and Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comment—might alienate working class voters, Davis also said, “People who work with their hands need to know that their cause is our cause.”
Davis, being an African-American who recently switched parties, has skyrocketed to Republican stardom. He spoke during primetime to the Republican National Convention. He gladly plays the role of assuaging any conservative guilt about their hostility to civil rights. “Conservatism has nothing to apologize for or be defensive about,” Davis asserted. But the whole rest of his speech was a defense against the widely held perception that conservatives are hostile to anyone who is not a rich white person.
Davis even went so far as to assert that for the homeless black men he passed in a park the night before, “conservatism has a case to make in their lives.” He did not explain what that case would be. The crowd clapped as if what conservatism offers the homeless is self-evident. Can you imagine a Republican candidate actually going to a group of homeless men in a park and arguing that cutting the capital gains tax is what will most help them? They need housing vouchers, Medicaid and food stamps, for which congressional Republicans are cutting funding.
Over a dozen speakers and panelists argued that all conservatives need to do to convert minorities, young people and women is to reach out to them. That, and a little dose of tokenism, will bring a diverse generation of single women and young Latinos into the Republican Party, they asserted. Several speakers glowingly mentioned Mia Love, a congressional candidate in Utah. Strangely, I did not catch references to any other first time congressional candidates. Surely the fact that Love happens to be African-American must be pure coincidence. Or not. “A party that has Bobby Jindal, Mia Love and Marco Rubio doesn’t need to take lessons from the left on diversity,” said Davis.
Rubio was the day’s keynote speaker, as he is for virtually any conservative convention that can get him. Conservatives believe that because he is Cuban-American and charismatic that he can make them more appealing to Latinos. And, as later panels demonstrated, they are very anxious about the growing, Democratic-leaning Latino population.
One of the panels was devoted to the right’s current imaginary scourge: voter fraud. This grows out of the same anxiety about America’s changing demographics. Conservatives recommend policies that would disproportionately disenfranchise minorities, young people and poor people. This has been a direct response to young people and minorities becoming more Democratic and a larger share of the electorate. To win with an almost exclusively older white base, Republicans must limit participation from everyone else. True the Vote, an anti-voter fraud group that is participating in its first presidential election was tabling in the exhibition hall.
Another afternoon panel was called, “The Next Generation of Conservatives: Growing the Conservative Movement.” Every speaker portrayed young conservatives as an embattled minority. Some, such as Charlie Kirk, founder of SOSLiberty.com, a group of fiscally conservative youth, insisted that the tide is beginning to turn. Kirk said his liberal friends realized after watching the presidential debate that it will ultimately fall on them to pay off the accumulation of federal debt. “Fiscal conservatism is taking over the youth,” he concluded, although he offered no electoral results or polling data to support that claim.
Others were more frank about their dire prospects for the future and the need to address it. “I’m kept up at night by the possibility of Hispanics voting [up to 95 percent] liberal,” fretted Mario Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a conservative advocacy group. Lopez noted that 50,000 Hispanics, of whom 44,000 are citizens, turn 18 years old each month. “We can’t win on policy the other 364 days of the year if we lose on Election Day, and increasingly that means we need to expand the base,” said Lopez.
Townhall.com political editor Guy Benson praised the RNC’s tokenistic lineup of speakers as a means of diversity outreach. “I was very encouraged by [the RNC’s] smart strategic speaker choices,” said Benson, ticking off some of the female and non-white speakers.
Lopez suggested a less condescending approach that is actually smarter and more strategic than simply finding every minority or woman in the GOP, all the way down to the wife of the governor of Puerto Rico, and putting her on stage. He acknowledged that there is a tendency for Republicans to simply put Rubio forward and assume that will take care of Latino outreach, while white Democratic politicians forthrightly make the case to minorities that the Democratic platform is in their best interest. Calling on white Republicans to do the same, Lopez said, “We need to make our principles relate to people’s everyday lives. We have to demand of our conservative leaders, what are they doing to expand the base? So that when we come back to CPAC in Colorado we’re in a room three times the size, and it looks more like America.”
Certainly, the polls and past election results suggest the RNC’s empty tokenism has failed to win over minorities or women. Lopez’s suggestion might work better. An even more effective way of appealing to women and minorities, of course, would be endorsing policies that protect them from discrimination. But no one mentioned that.
Anita Moncrief, an African-American “ACORN whistleblower,” exhorted the audience, “We have to stop preaching to the choir and talk to these people. Until we do that we won’t grow the movement. Most of what people see as racism is just miscommunication.”
Young conservatives seemed particularly distressed by the fact that people think their politics might hurt their social status. Moncrief lamented that her political conversion from Democrat to Republican took unduly long because, “they’ve made it sound uncool to be a conservative.” Conservative commentator Dana Loesch, who moderated the panel, later asked, “How do we remove the stigma that it’s uncool to be conservative or that our ideas are antiquated?” The answers were mainly that conservatives should meet liberals and show they aren’t angry and use humor like John Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
No one brought up the elephant in the room: what if conservatives seem uncool because their policies are uncool and their ideas are antiquated? Having sex is cool. Abstinence-only education and opposition to contraception is uncool and antiquated. Being tolerant and cosmopolitan is cool. Opposing gay rights and immigration is uncool. Here’s a suggestion for how could conservatives could become cooler: by becoming socially liberal.
The preceding panel was called “The Fictional #WaronWomen.” It featured five conservative women making some of the usual, predictable arguments about why women are really better off with Republicans. The most common conservative talking point is that the overall economy matters more to women than their civil rights, so “the real war on women” is Obama’s economy.
Several panelists also invoked Hillary Rosen’s reference to Ann Romney’s never working outside the home as evidence that Democrats do not respect the importance of motherhood. “Moms have to stick together and those comments are telling about the radical feminization of society, that only work outside the home [counts],” said Debbie Brown, director of the Colorado Women’s Alliance.
But there was a considerable amount of hand-wringing over the fact that single women vote Democratic. Again the assumption was that it is not conservative policies, merely their packaging, that is the problem. “We should be telling single women, who may feel more vulnerable and want to keep the safety net strong, that Paul Ryan has the answer for them,” said Representative Cynthia Lummis (R-WY). That’s because Lummis does not accept that turning Medicare into a voucher system eviscerates, rather than preserves, the social safety net. Ruth Malhotra, assistant editor of Patheos.com and the panel’s moderator, speculated that single women think they are “married to the government” and therefore dependent on it.
The solution, as always, is tokenism. “We shouldn’t be able to count on one hand the minority stars in our party,” complains Crystal Wright, who runs the site ConservativeBlackChick.com. But if you could count them on two hands, that would still be no substitute for a policy platform. Until conservatives change that, their demographic anxiety is likely to grow.
If the GOP can’t win over minority voters, they will try to disenfranchise them instead. Check out The Nation’s coverage of voter suppression across the U.S.