Day two of CPAC was livelier than the first, perhaps auguring the required change the GOP needs to undertake to include demographics it has willfully neglected in time for the midterms and 2016. Instead of the soporific, self-congratulatory speeches saddled with the overused phrase, “America is the greatest country on Earth,” several panels raised issues that have significant impact on the future of both parties and the country. Leah Libresco summarized the panel debating Snowden’s actions, during which former intelligence officer and Governor of Virginia Jim Gilmore, who firmly believes Snowden is a traitor, went tête à tête with Snowden’s family attorney, Bruce Fein. Gilmore’s unequivocal statements drew angry responses from the crowd (upon hearing the officer’s remark about his knowledge of the Fourth Amendment, a heckler shouted, “You lie!”), and little else from the panel resulted aside from a passionate crossing of swords. Nonetheless, it was encouraging to see conservatives disagree on two legitimate points of view. Disagreement strengthens ideas, and willingness to listen to those within the party may translate into bipartisan collaboration down the road.
The criminal justice reform panel, though less heated, provided insight into the reality of non-violent first-time offenders. For crimes that are as trivial as selling non-weapon contraband on eBay are languishing in prison while state governments foot the bill. Governor of Texas Rick Perry elaborated on his effective management of the prison system in Texas: fewer inmates are incarcerated in Texas than in New York, and as a result, the state is spending less. “You want to see real conservative governance?” Governor Perry asked in a rare moment of eloquence. “Shut those prisons down. Save that money.” Indeed, the entire panel, including former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik, who served a short prison term himself, agreed that mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines were inefficient and branded too many offenders as felons, a title that would haunt them for the rest of their lives. For the first time at CPAC, there were practical, applicable solutions presented to address an unwieldy problem.
Finally, the panel titled “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Ever Get Along?” was perhaps the panel with most genuinely engaged participants at CPAC yet. The crux of the panel focused on religious liberty within the context of gay marriage. Does the state have the right to enforce a definition of marriage that goes against those who oppose it on moral grounds? Do the states have the right to define marriage? This is a tough question, and has two perspectives: an individual contract upheld by the state, and a state institution that individuals choose to participate in. 20-year old Alexander McCobin, cofounder and president of Students for Liberty, offered remarkably deft and insightful input referencing the 13th amendment and comparing gay marriage to the repeal of interracial marriage laws, an apt legal comparison that was immediately shot down. The panel was unable to find common ground to agree on, which may be the beginning of irreconcilable differences that could lead to a larger split within the conservative movement.
The GOP needs to take the golden opportunity the debacle of Obamacare has given them to reassess its stance on social issues them before getting back in the ring with the Democrats. If they don’t, they will continue to alienate libertarians with their out of touch messaging and stale ideas. Republicans must be willing to strike a compromise for the sake of its own viability in the next two rounds of elections.