CPAC’s Empty Chairs

New Jersey governor Chris Christie



The sponsors and organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) are voluntary associations that are of course entitled to advocate conservative causes as they see fit, including by controlling who is and who is not invited to participate in the conference. But as friends of CPAC and fellow conservative advocates, we nevertheless regret that CPAC has excluded the gay conservative group GOProud and declined to invite New Jersey governor Chris Christie.

GOProud is the most conservative gay group of note (perhaps the only gay group rightly called conservative), and that conservatism extends to its circumspection about many planks of the so-called gay-rights agenda. Its participation in past CPACs caused only mild disquiet (indeed, much of the scattered criticism of GOProud’s inclusion at the conference was shouted down by other attendees) and was probably salubrious on net. Conservative opinion on the intersection of homosexuality and politics is not monolithic, especially among the college-aged set that makes up the better part of CPAC attendees. And a gathering that hopes to speak for the conservative movement will be better equipped to do so if it represents the overlapping gamut of views included in it.

CPAC’s inviting GOProud to participate again would not now, as it did not at earlier conferences, imply its endorsement of any particular policies regarding gays, just as CPAC’s invitation to Chris Hayes to speak on a panel does not imply its endorsement of MSNBC. Speaking of Hayes, his rebuff of CPAC’s invitation — lodged as a protest against GOProud’s exclusion — has probably had a greater downside for CPAC than its past inclusion of GOProud ever did. Conservatives rightly lament that pro-life Democrats are regularly marginalized in the various organs of the Left. This marginalization rarely breaks through into the mainstream narrative about the Left. But conservatives are not so lucky, and the present case perhaps unjustly, but nevertheless needlessly, fuels a narrative of marginalization on the Right.

The matter of Chris Christie is somewhat different. CPAC’s exclusion of Christie was not an act of commission but rather one of omission. And while the New Jersey governor is certainly not entitled to speak at the conference, we fear the decision not to invite him to do so is illustrative of a potentially unhealthy trend. Organizers told National Review Online they were displeased with Christie’s restrictionist views on gun control and felt he had a limited future in the national party. We, too, have concerns about the governor’s views on guns — and on other issues — but those concerns are tempered by our respect for his handling of New Jersey’s finances and his reining in of the public-sector unions, which for decades had a vice-like grip on Trenton. Our approach has been to praise those of Christie’s policies that we think judicious and wise, and to criticize those that we think provocative and unwise. We do not think the latter requires reading him out of the conservatism movement or the Republican party.

As with GOProud, conservative opinion on Christie is not monolithic. He remains wildly popular with self-described conservatives and Republicans in his own state. Perhaps more interestingly, and certainly more problematically, he is currently quite popular with New Jersey Democrats as well. This has made him an early prohibitive favorite to win reelection in a very blue state, and has only further fueled speculation about a 2016 presidential bid. But Christie’s unique political coordinates could make for a very interesting CPAC session. If nothing else, asking him to reflect on his bipartisan popularity might give CPAC attendees a better understanding of how Christie understands the relationship between conservative principles and public appeal, and the extent to which compromising or modifying the former can be key to securing the latter in his particular circumstances.

As with GOProud, merely giving space to Christie’s views would not amount to an endorsement of them. But it could help move the intra-conservative conversation in productive new directions. And that, as we understand it, is what CPAC is supposed to be about.