Exclusive — Under New Leadership, CPAC Heads In a More Conservative Direction

Rick Bowmer/AP
Rick Bowmer/AP

The American Conservative Union (ACU), and its signature annual event the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), are heading in a more conservative direction after previous years when they drifted away from the core values of conservatism.

ACU’s new chairman Matt Schlapp, new executive director Dan Schneider and other staff sat down with Breitbart News for a lengthy interview at the ACU’s headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C., last week—an interview in which they walked through the themes of this year’s conference. A large focus will be discussing how to apply Ronald Reagan’s three legged stool of conservatism–social conservatism, national security conservatism, and fiscal conservatism–to the problems ahead. Reagan’s “Peace Through Strength” doctrine, they say, applies to the entire cultural and political debate, not just in fighting off foreign enemies.

But Schlapp, a former White House official, told Breitbart News that the primary theme for CPAC 2015 is “Conservative Action Starts Here.” He referenced how Breitbart News and other conservatives held, at CPAC 2013 and CPAC 2014, panels called “The Uninvited” and “The Uninvited II,” because of a lack of focus on social and national security issues at CPAC those years. The divide wasn’t just found at those Uninvited panels, though–conservatives inside CPAC raised their concerns with leaders like Citizens United’s Dave Bossie, the Media Research Center’s Brent Bozell, and others speaking up about the concerns in the building.

Because of those struggles in recent years, and concerted efforts by the ACU to listen to grassroots concerns about the direction of the landmark conference, the organization is now emerging as stronger, more conservative and more united.

The path that it’s taken is not the easy road. As anyone who has been swept up into the political establishment over the years knows, it is much easier in politics to just roll with the tide of the powerful and the elite, ignoring the grassroots. But under Schlapp’s and Schneider’s leadership, and with the help of key staffers like Carin and Ian Walters among others, the ACU has rejected that powerful pull of the establishment. They’re fighting to include as many people in the process as possible. And they’re implementing the recommendations from grassroots activists and leaders for solutions to the things they’ve been criticized for in the past.

“We believe [that action-focused theme] is important because I have been on the board of the American Conservative Union for a number of years now and have attended a lot of CPACs, and we thought that there was an element that was missing—something that actually other groups would take advantage of with extra-curricular activities,” Schlapp says:

That is that we have all these activists here from all around the country, why aren’t we helping them figure out how to be better activists? They can listen to their political heroes and sometimes they can talk to them, they can hear great inspirational talks—and sometimes talks that quite frankly depress you when you realize how bad the state of certain things are, but what helps them go back into their communities and be a more effective voice for conservative beliefs? So, we’ve got this day of training on the day before CPAC, and this is not a one-day thing. We’re going to come out of this and figure out how do we do this generally? I think we have an obligation to continue the conversation and develop the relationship with those people who put their hard earned money on the table to come to CPAC. We need to keep talking to them. We need to keep educating them. We need to keep being challenged by them. We need to challenge them. That’s the type of organization ACU is going to become.

Schlapp said the second major theme that this year’s CPAC will focus in on is how the history of ACU and the history of the conservative movement is important.

“Conservative Action Starts Here” will be big and loud on the stage but also the second thing is we think our history is very, very important. Our history has always been about uniting people in the conservative world together because—yeah, we’re going to have disagreements. We do not want to stop the disagreements. But we don’t want to have everyone at each other’s throats so if we forget that if we don’t all work together, bad things happen like Barack Obama gets two terms. He gets a lot of liberal judges. He uses his pen to dictate all kinds of executive action that’s problematic. We don’t need a third term. We hopefully have woken up to the fact that it’s imperative that we get our act together, that we win. Now, I think we win when we stand for conservative policies. I’m not asking us to water down our conservative policies. I just want to make sure ACU plays the role that it has of uniting social conservatives—people who care about the culture—people who care about national security, and people who care about low taxes, free markets and free trade.

Schneider even keeps taped to his computer a printout of two different stools—one with the words CPAC 2014 above it and the other with the words CPAC 2015 above it. The 2014 stool is missing two legs, and the 2015 stool has all three.

“I’ve been pounding this theme with our staff that we need to have all three legs of the Reagan stool and I showed up one morning and our CPAC director, Carin Walters, had taped this on to my computer screen,” Schneider said. “This image of CPAC 2014 versus CPAC 2015, a one legged stool versus three legs. I was so thrilled that they’ve absorbed the concept. It is now part of our DNA.”

Schlapp echoed that, saying it’s now the view of the ACU that the three major elements of conservatism “should be in balance.”

“So we think that people who are concerned about the culture predominantly should be able to come to CPAC and see that those issues are important,” Schlapp said.

We think that people who think that what’s going on with the radical Islamic threat come to CPAC and they will see that we share their concerns. People who come to CPAC and say that the government is too big and does too much and is in all of our lives, will come to CPAC and say they understand our point of view. All three of the major parts of this coalition, there will be panels and speeches that focus on those areas. Specifically, we have decided—the American Conservative Union as a nonprofit—that okay, there are a lot of conservative groups and there’s a lot of conservative voices. But we still think there are gaps. There are gaps when it comes to questions of religious liberty. We don’t think that we really have the right strategy yet when it comes to making sure those rights are protected. National security, there’s a lot of Bush people, Reagan people, Cheney people who completely disagree sometimes on questions of when America goes to war, what’s the nature of a threat and what we should do, what are legitimate privacy concerns and what are our civil liberties? So these are legitimate questions and by the way, I don’t know what the conservative consensus is on all of these. CPAC is going to explore that.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), who has been described by the Weekly Standard as the “most important Republican not running for president” because of the ideas and solutions he’s pushing with his Conservative Reform Agenda, will be kicking off the conference with the first major speech on Thursday morning of that week.

“It’s not an accident that he is speaking at the start of CPAC,” Schneider said. “He has a comprehensive approach to conservatism that we think can launch the conference in the right direction.”

Schlapp added that Lee’s vision—which he is now pushing as chairman of the Senate Steering Committee—is “uniquely important” to conservatism.

“His themes remind us that we just can’t revolt against the powers that be, we have to have tangible policies in a democracy that will fix the problems that the American people are facing,” Schlapp said.

That matches nicely with where we think CPAC and the American Conservative Union—and the conservative movement at large—needs to go. It’s one thing to have a conversation with other conservatives about what we should do tactically. But in a democracy, your audience has to be bigger. And you have to provide solutions for those people. Those solutions have to be well vetted by those conservative thinkers in the conservative movement and we think Mike Lee is someone who leads in that and who is doing that. There are others who are doing that as well, but his is an interesting voice since he’s so new to Washington. He’s come to this conclusion that that is what is needed—and we agree with him.

Schneider said, too, that a big focus of the conference this year will be re-exploring what Ronald Reagan meant with “Peace Through Strength”—something he noted didn’t mean just military might.

“People have long forgotten what the Reagan Doctrine of Peace Through Strength really means,” Schneider said.

It means economic strength. It means military strength. It means political influence abroad. It means cultural strength. So we are having a panel on the main stage—a discussion—with some of the most influential people in the movement who can educate attendees on what America’s role in the world ought to be so we can protect our own freedoms. So from the main stage we also have breakout panels that dissect other parts of the Peace Through Strength doctrine. Because, ultimately, the conference is about combining conservative ideas with action because ideas without action might be personally interesting but not beneficial to society and action without ideas can be pointless. We’re combining the ideas with the action.

Coming off the resounding GOP win in the 2014 midterm elections, and heading into the crucial 2016 presidential election, this CPAC may be one of the most important ever for the conservative movement–and ultimately for the Republican Party–as the party’s fate and the nation’s hang in the balance.

Most, if not all, potential GOP presidential candidates will be speaking at CPAC this year. They include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Rand Paul (R-KY), former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, real estate magnate Donald Trump, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Dr. Ben Carson, 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Schlapp said that for the first time in decades, the conservative base will have a huge role in determining who the GOP nominee is going to be—and that the GOP isn’t just going to coronate who’s next in line. And because they’re all speaking at CPAC, he said, they will all be claiming the “conservative mantle”—even if they don’t have a good claim to make that they’re conservative. While it’s the job of the base and the voters to determine who actually has a just claim for the “conservative mantle,” Schlapp noted by the mere fact that all the potential GOP candidates coming and claiming to be conservatives the influence—and importance—of the conservative movement is on display.

“First of all, we are at a historically unique moment for those of us who claim the Republican mantle. It’s an open seat,” Schlapp said.

There is not a likely nominee. There is not a person who came in second who is waiting to take the next step up, which we always do. We don’t have that situation. All these candidates are coming to CPAC because they know conservatives will have the largest role in determining who the nominee is. Some people look at that situation and find a glass half empty. I look at that situation and say that glass is not half full, it’s three quarters full. We have a fantastic opportunity to have the biggest impact that the movement has ever had on this nominating process. All of those potential candidates who come here are going to try to claim that conservative mantle. Some might have a better claim. But they’re all going to try to grab it. And they’re going to make their case.

Schneider added that Americans should view the upcoming GOP presidential primary process—of which this upcoming CPAC is really the first event where all the potential candidates are going to appear together—as a hiring process.

“Our attendees, and the American public generally, should think of this next presidential election as a hiring process,” Schneider said. “The American public is on the hiring committee, and we’ve got people looking for a job. This is an interview process. Our attendees get to evaluate the talent and make a decision as to how they think will be most effective in running the executive branch of our government.”

Because of that influence the grassroots has over the electoral process, Schlapp said, Washington and Wall Street powerhouses no longer get to determine outright who is going to be the next president of the United States.

“I said to someone the other day that 10 home school families in Iowa could have a bigger impact on who this next nominee is than your 10 biggest financiers from Manhattan,” Schlapp said. “I really do believe that. I think that today, like never before, these activists are in a bigger way in the driver’s seat. Once again, I see that as a positive.”

Schlapp said Americans are upset with—furious at—the power structures in America.

“I think the American people look at their institutions and their leaders and they’re incredibly disillusioned,” he said.

They’re disillusioned with the leaders of their churches. They’re disillusioned with these CEOs who they thought were the smartest people in the room. They’re disillusioned with these smart regulators who were supposed to stop and prevent problems but now they realize these regulators might be the problem. They’re looking at all of these questions and they’re saying the people I go to normally, who will have answers and do the right thing, I’ve lost confidence.

Because of that disillusionment with the establishment world of business and politics and its intersection with liberal Hollywood, Schlapp said, the Republican candidate who understands that the most is likely to win over the conservative movement and then eventually likely the GOP nomination. If the Republican Party doesn’t figure out what the conservative movement has, however, they could be headed for an official split—something that the presence of United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage’s presence at CPAC represents.

“I grew up in Kansas. Dan grew up in Kansas,” Schlapp said.

If you are out there in flyover country, which I mean as a term of endearment, but I think they look at all these big, big banks, big government—it almost sounds flattering, I’m getting dangerously close [to sounding like the themes of Breitbart News’ website]—they look at all that and the collusion of these worlds and they wonder who’s doing their bidding and how do they come out in this process? I think the Republican Party has a real chance—and they might blow it—but they have a real chance to connect to people by saying it’s not about the government picking the winner and the loser, and it’s not about the government working with the big business trade associations to figure out the policies that work for all them, it’s a great moment to go back and think about what are the principles from which we should govern for the next four years? The candidate who gets that, and connects with that, is the one who is going to get that conservative mantle, I think.

All of this and more will be on display at CPAC in 2015, which will be held from Feb. 25 through Feb. 28 at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland just outside of Washington, D.C.


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