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How Conservative Is CPAC?

On the surface, the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference wasn’t much different from most years. There were the usual bizarre theatrics, ritual denunciations of Barack Obama, and the early cattle call of possible Republican candidates for the next presidential election.

But the CPAC straw poll found a group of young conference-goers who were markedly more libertarian and noninterventionist than their elders. The survey found that 77 percent believed it was most important to secure individual freedom “by reducing the size and scope of government” while just 15 percent said their main goal was promoting traditional values.

A plurality of 50 percent said it was time for U.S. allies in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere to bear the costs of their own national defense, while just 34 percent said “the world’s only superpower” should be on the hook.

Convening in the wake of Rand Paul’s anti-drone filibuster, 86 percent opposed the government using drones to kill U.S. citizens. Fully 70 percent were against using drones even to spy on citizens.

Maybe Mike Huckabee had a point when he said that CPAC was becoming more libertarian than conventionally conservative.

The only exception was sequestration, where 68 percent of those who voted in the straw poll wanted to allocate the spending cuts differently than the current law. Respondents weren’t invited to elaborate on their reasoning, but the implication was that the across-the-board cuts fell too heavily on defense.

Some might respond that since Rand Paul won CPAC’s presidential vote, these results must reflect his youthful supporters stuffing the ballot box—an oversampling of “libertarian kids,” as some might put it.

But Paul edged out Marco Rubio by just 25 percent to 23 percent. The Kentucky senator’s supporters were only a fourth of those who voted. Skepticism about government at home and abroad—even in areas with which conservatives have traditionally been comfortable—prevailed by a much wider margin.

The voters were indeed young, however: 52 percent of those who cast straw poll ballots were between the ages of 18 and 25. Another 20 percent were aged 26 to 40. Only 5 percent were over the age of 65.

Most of the reactions tend to suggest that this new libertarian tilt is bad news for social conservatism. The columnist George Will described “a sense of live and let live with subjects such as decriminalization of certain drugs and gay marriage.”

Yet as soon as Paul left CPAC, he unveiled a sweeping pro-life bill that eschewed his father’s federalist approach to the issue. (Though the distinction can be overstated: Ron Paul was also a pro-lifer who sometimes reluctantly voted for federal legislation aimed at curbing abortion.)

So far the first part of Will’s take on libertarian Republicanism has held up better, the view that it might have “an effect on foreign policy, that is a pullback from nation building and other kind of ambitions abroad that they never countenance from government at home.” Its immediate targets have been presidential war powers, extrajudicial killings, and the surveillance programs that were the hallmark of George W. Bush’s conception of the war on terror.

To be sure, these gains are fragile. The same CPAC attendees who “Stand with Rand” and chant “Don’t drone me, bro” often have no problem with Rubio, whose foreign-policy inclinations are markedly different, and give relatively high approval ratings to John Boehner’s House.

It’s easy to see how the White House shifting from an insufficiently civil libertarian Democrat to a generically hawkish Republican could change this dynamic. A few election losses could badly deplete the ranks of libertarian-leaning political leaders.

But the liberty movement is already more established—and on questions of war and peace, more ideological—than the Buchananites who compelled Bush to pretend he favored a humble foreign policy. Its reach can increasingly be felt in more established free-market groups that have previously preferred to get involved in Republican primaries when tax hikes or government bailouts were involved.

This renewed era of big government has added $6 trillion to the national debt. Coincidentally, that’s also the latest cost estimate for the Iraq War. The emergence of Republicans serious about big government at home and in favor of a less expensive foreign policy abroad couldn’t have come at a better time.

Many Republicans will nevertheless only be convinced by one tagline: Don’t primary me, bro.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the newly released Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?

about the author

W. James Antle III, contributing editor, is the Politics Editor at the Washington Examiner. A former senior writer at TAC, Antle also previously served as managing editor of the Daily Caller, editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation, and associate editor of the American Spectator. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Antle has appeared on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and NPR, among other outlets, and has written for a wide variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Politico, the Week, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the Daily Beast, the Guardian, Reason, the Spectator of London, The National Interest and National Review Online. He also serves as a senior adviser to Defense Priorities.

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