CPAC the Next Battleground in the Right's Civil War

This week, conservatives will descend on the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, for the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference. The confab will take place against the backdrop of what some political observers are calling a "civil war" on the right -- the bitter dregs left over from the election of 2012 .

Forget the finger pointing, the accusations of apostasy, extremism, and craziness. What the fight is really about is who gets to define the public face of conservatism and, more prosaically, what conservatism means.

Is conservatism one set of principles upon which everyone on the right can agree? Is it a loose set of issues around which a broad coalition can form? Is it an ideology? A personal philosophy?

In truth, the biggest political disadvantage from which the right suffers at the moment is incoherence. This has left the door wide open for Democrats and the left to define conservatism any way they choose -- and they choose to put the absolute worst possible spin on the individual faux pas and idiocies coming mostly from fringe elements on the right in an effort to tar all conservatives as extremists, racists, misogynists, and dangerous fanatics.

Lacking a recognized leader, conservatives have been unable to formulate a strategy to counter these charges, which are advanced by every leading Democrat from the president on down. Not only has the right been unable to organize a defense against these slanders, but their lack of leadership has also meant that precious little has been done to explain even the most basic elements of conservative governance -- constitutional limits on government, a well-ordered free market, and adherence to the rule of law -- giving the president and his redistributionist policies a virtual free ride in the marketplace of ideas.

Can anything be done? Not as long as there is a chasm between the factions that self-identify as "conservative." If it were simply a matter of the "establishment" versus "the base," differences could be papered over and a cautious unity could be achieved -- at least until after the next election.

Unfortunately, the divide is more profound than that, and subsuming the very real differences between factions is no longer acceptable -- not after two election losses in what should have been winnable contests. The base is angry at the establishment for watering down what they see as the purity of true conservativism, while the establishment seems genuinely concerned about what they feel is extremism and just plain kookiness from some in the base. In reality, it is the ideological fervor of the base vs. the more pragmatic, philosophical beliefs of most of the establishment that is at issue.

If conservatism means believing in and following a set of recognized principles, both sides would probably surprise themselves by realizing they agree on most of them. Does anyone on the right seriously disagree with Russell Kirk's "Ten Conservative Principles" or Michael Oakeshott's "On Being Conservative"? There is more to conservatism than what those two esteemed intellectuals believed, but their writing and thinking encompass a good deal of what modern conservatism means to its adherents.

If not a big divide over principles, what then? The schism is between those who are consumed by conservative ideology to the point that winning elections is secondary to -- or at least as important as -- maintaining a consistent support for issues and those who might sacrifice an issue to the larger cause of governance.

The split between ideologues and pragmatists is nothing new, but this time much of it appears driven by opposition to certain personalities. CPAC raised some eyebrows by not inviting Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey to speak, saying the popular blue-state governor has a "limited future" in the national party. It might have had more to do with Christie's embrace of President Obama for his help following Hurricane Sandy and the governor's subsequent dressing down of Republican lawmakers for holding up federal storm aid to his state.