Conservatives at CPAC Talking the Talk — But Can they Walk the Walk?

"Reform" is the word on the lips of most of the nearly 9,000 attendees at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). It's a young crowd with a good mix of seasoned veterans to leaven the enthusiasm of the college kids. Wide-eyed and earnest, the younger generation, raised on the conservative infotainment offered up by talk radio and other mass media conservative stars, also seem to have embraced the message of reform. In short, if this CPAC conference's main objective is to point the way to a conservative comeback, it's gotten off to a good start.

The speakers and panels so far have been making all the right noises about having learned their lessons from the 2006 and 2008 electoral debacles. Political defeat, like the prospect of being hanged, concentrates the mind wonderfully. And there seems to be a grim determination underpinning the talk of reform and change -- as if the movement has taken the defeats to heart and is truly chastened by the experience.

Of this I have no doubt. But talking about reform while failing to address some fundamental problems with the conservative movement itself may see any real effort at change an exercise in wishful thinking.

Classic conservative principles are timeless; immutable tenets that have inspired great changes in government over the last 400 years and spoken passionately and plainly to the needs and hopes of ordinary people. Since the end of World War II, those classical principles have informed a  devastating critique of the welfare state, presenting a reasoned and logical alternative to statism and dependency. Conservatism has stood for human liberty based on the fundamental idea of natural law; that from his first breath, man is born free.

But conservatism has gone off the rails, becoming in some respects a parody of itself. A philosophy that is all about honoring and conserving tradition while allowing for change  that buttresses and supports important aspects of the past, has been hijacked by ideologues who brook no deviation from a dogma that limits rather than expands human freedom. Conservatism has become loud, obnoxious, closed-minded, and puerile, while its classical tradition of tolerance and hard-headed rationalism has been abandoned in favor of emotional jags and a vicious parochialism that eschews debate for "litmus tests" on ideological purity.

Can CPAC accomplish anything that will begin to address what conservatism has become -- both the perception and reality?

Not when some major conservative figures kid themselves that there is success in unity and victory in simply standing up and saying "no" to the Obama bailout culture:

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) on Thursday claimed the unanimous House Republican opposition to President Barack Obama's stimulus package was a turning point for the conservative movement.

"We lost that legislative battle, but we won the argument," Pence said in a speech to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. "We won because we got back to basics."

"Welcome to the beginning of the comeback," Pence added. "Republicans will be faithful and loyal in our opposition to the liberal Democrats' agenda.

Such feel good bromides do not convince anyone that the unity Pence is talking about extends much beyond opposition to the radical liberal ideas of the Democrats. If conservatives could unite on what positive alternatives to Obama's spending plans they can present, that would be a different story.  That would show a movement  ready to compete in the marketplace of ideas once again.