I’ve been covering the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, on and off for more than a decade. I’ve seen it in full jingoistic flower early in George W. Bush’s administration, when attendees could buy bumper stickers than said “No Muslims = No Terrorists” and hurl beanbags at toy trolls holding signs that said “The Homosexual Agenda” or “The Liberal Media.” I’ve seen it during moments of despair, when conservatives realized that Republican leaders wouldn’t enact the entirety of their kamikaze agenda. But I have rarely seen it as slick and sunny as this year, and that scares me.
CPAC, for those lucky enough to be unacquainted, is the most important right-wing conference of the year, regularly drawing leading Republican politicians and aspirants. This year, all the likely Republican presidential candidates are here, including Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and Rick Santorum. Perhaps because of that, there seems to have been a real effort to tone down the outrageousness. Poor Ann Coulter, once a reliable CPAC bomb-thrower, is nowhere on the program. There’s a conspicuous absence of Hillary Clinton nutcrackers and other Instagram-ready right-wing kitsch. Even Sarah Palin, who spoke Thursday night, was shockingly lucid and reasonable, devoting her remarks to the plight of veterans suffering overlong deployments, PTSD and backlogs at the VA.
Sure, there were moments of craziness—this is CPAC, after all. Scott Walker made headlines for saying, apropos of ISIS, “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.” Donald Trump appeared before a jam-packed room and said some Donald Trumpish things. But the organizers seem to have made a concerted effort not to embarrass the Republican Party. They still don’t let the Log Cabin Republicans sponsor events, but there was little anti-gay rhetoric—even Ted Cruz framed his stance on gay marriage as a states rights issue rather than saying anything about one man and one woman.
This is bad news. One of the essential weaknesses of the GOP is the gap between their extremist base and the broader electorate. Their candidates have to feed red meat to the former without repelling the latter. When they fail, whether with Palin in 2008 or Todd Akin in 2012, they lose. As long as they can put a patina of reasonableness over their reaction, they have a chance.