Politics & Policy

CPAC, the Border Guard

New Jersey governor Chris Christie
As the borders of the conservative movement shrink, CPAC should be acting instead more like a tourist board.

What can you do with a man like Chris Christie?

The answer, according to many within the conservative movement: Throw him overboard. And while we’re at it, let’s toss the gays over the side too.

The popular governor of New Jersey has certainly angered many conservatives, including this humble scribe. During the crucial final days of the presidential election, Christie didn’t merely embrace President Obama, he all but endorsed him.

#ad#Then, during the congressional fight over the disaster-relief bill for victims of superstorm Sandy — a bill with more pork in it than a Jimmy Dean factory — Christie denounced Republicans who wanted to move the legislation a few micrometers closer to kosher. Christie, who built a reputation as a fiscal conservative, not only didn’t care that the relief bill contained, among many other porcine baubles, millions for Alaskan fisheries (which are roughly 4,000 miles out of Sandy’s path), he acted as if Capitol Hill Republicans should be ashamed for even mentioning it.

Oh, and he parroted the gun-control line and flip-flopped on accepting a federal bribe to accept Obamacare funding to expand Medicaid.

Now, in fairness, Christie has his reasons for doing all of these things. Some are pretty defensible, others far less so.

But whatever the strengths of his positions, no one attending this month’s Conservative Political Action Conference will hear them.

The sociology of CPAC is hard to describe to people outside the conservative movement. In a sense, it’s the Comic-Con of conservatism, overflowing with stalls and barkers like a Middle Eastern bazaar. It also serves as a de facto political convention for the ideological base of the Republican Party.   

And that’s why CPAC’s decision to not invite Christie was probably a mistake. I’ve enjoyed my visits to CPAC. (Heck, I was named its conservative journalist of the year in 2011.)

The problem is that CPAC is the first bottleneck in the Republican presidential pipeline, and at precisely the moment the party should be making every effort to be — or at least seem! — as open as possible to differing points of view, it’s chosen to exclude the most popular governor in the country. (He has a 74 percent approval rating in deep-blue New Jersey.) Why? Because, a source familiar with CPAC’s internal deliberations told National Review Online, Christie has a “limited future” in the Republican party because of his position on gun control.

C’mon, really? The man is going to be reelected as a Republican. That’s a little future right there. Also, CPAC is chockablock with speakers who have a limited future — or even a limited past — in the Republican party.

But most important, since when is CPAC an organ of the Republican party? Christie’s future in the GOP is up to Republican voters. I happen to hew closer to CPAC’s apparently official position on gun control than to Christie’s. But I’d love to hear him talk about school reform and his battle with public-sector unions. I’d love to see him debate someone on gun control or on how to cut government spending in a climate where people like Christie are so quick to demagogue crisis-exploiting spending.

Heck, I’d like to hear debates on pretty much any and every issue dividing factions on the right, including gay rights. But CPAC has declared that gay groups can’t even set up a booth this year. It’s one thing to hold firm to your principles on traditional marriage; it’s quite another to say that dissenting gay groups — that is, conservative gay groups — can’t officially hand out fliers on the premises (as they were allowed to in the past). 

Some will no doubt see this as CPAC bravely holding the line. But it reads to many in the public as a knee-jerk and insecure retreat at precisely the moment conservatives should be sending the opposite message. Maybe the near third of young Republicans who support gay marriage are wrong, but CPAC won’t convince them — never mind other young voters — of that by fueling the storyline that conservatives are scared of gays.

It’s not CPAC’s fault that the borders of conservatism are shrinking, but it would be nice if at this moment it acted less like a border guard keeping all but the exquisitely credentialed out and more like a tourist board, explaining why it’s such a great place to visit — and live.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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