As this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, at National Harbor in Washington, is the GOP’s first major gathering since the Democratic coalition trounced Republicans in November, it stands to reason that the party's demographic dilemma would be a preoccupation among panelists. How goes Republicans' hopes to refill the Big Tent with Latinos and young voters and the like?
Not so hot.
Rather than a genuine call for greater inclusiveness, a lot of the Big Tent rhetoric at CPAC 2013 thus far sounds like therapy for the right-wingers who got the GOP to this point in the first place. At “A Lasting Immigration Policy,” Jennifer Korn, the director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, implored her audience, “You can be conservative and be for immigration reform.” Almost as if to say, it’s okay to feel that there’s a problem. Stephen Fong, the chairman of the Asian American Caucus and a panelist on “Conservative Inclusion: Promoting the Freedom Message to All Americans,” said to the audience, “Inclusion. I used to think ‘inclusion’ was a P.C., namby-pamby, Kumbaya term. But after this election, I think ‘inclusion’ is the right word.”
Fong's novel advice to Republicans: Talk to Asian voters. Yes, talking to more voters is an emerging theme of CPAC 2013. Said Alfonso Aguilar, director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles: “We have to engage with Latinos. And it can’t just start two months before the election. You can’t just say, ‘Juntos con Romney!’” Francesca Chambers, the editor of Red Alert Politics, said, “It’s not rocket science,” and that Ron Paul did it right. “He actually came to college campuses.”
It’s the GOP’s big hope that by talking to Latinos, young people, Asian Americans, fiscally conservative gays and lesbians, and even African Americans (the churchgoing ones), an electorally mighty number of them will come to realize that they are conservatives who just didn’t realize it. The number of times that formulation was repeated—particularly in the form of a Ronald Reagan quotation, “Hispanics are conservatives, they just don’t know it yet” 1—became too many to count.
But that brings its own complications. Not only are Latinos not as conservative as conservatives would have you believe, but for most of the panelists on “Winning with Generation X/Y” and “A Rainbow on the Right: Growing the Coalition, Bringing Tolerance Out of the Closet,” a precondition of mass millennial support is the abandonment of gay bigotry. Jeff Frazee, the executive director of Young Americans for Liberty, said he identifies not as a conservative, but a libertarian, because of the GOP’s stances on most social issues—drawing a “WOOO!” from the young audience. Sen. Rand Paul gets it. In his speech to a packed ballroom, he made a passing reference to the Facebook generation as the “core of the leave-me-alone generation,” earning him a “WOOO!,” too.
Yet older conservatives seem to believe earnestly that their opposition to gay rights will be catnip to Latinos, Asians, and blacks. Aguilar said that if the GOP shifts its positions on “the family,” “It’s suicide to think we can win over those new voters.” Gov. Rick Perry put it this way: “We’re told we must shift to appeal to the growing demographic of Hispanics.” The crowd booed like mad. “Let me tell you something about what appeals to Hispanics in states like Texas… Policies that value the family unit!” And not everyone is in the mood for therapy. Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador, a Mormon Latino, had this to say about immigration: “I know tone is important, but we need to stop flagellating ourselves.… We need to stop blaming ourselves for this problem.”
In perhaps the clearest sign of trouble, anyone not taking my diversity tour of CPAC might wonder what the plan was, exactly, for expanding the conservative coalition when things still look so … white.
This being CPAC, not everything is doom and gloom. There are moments of levity, too—sometimes even intentionally. Thursday afternoon featured “Fight Club 2013,” a battle of wit between Paul Begala, the Clintonite, and Tucker Carlson, the founder of The Daily Caller. One “round”—naturally, this event had a boxing bell and a scantily-clad ring girl—was a game of word association. “Hispanics,” said the moderator. Carlson went first: “Still winnable, politically.” Then it was Begala’s turn. “Democrats!” he said with a grin. “Oh, and, uh, gracias.”
It’s actually a misquote.