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.

But the wrath of the base has also been directed at reliably conservative governors like Rick Scott of Florida and John Kasich of Ohio. Their transgression was agreeing to the expansion of Medicaid in their states and the acceptance of federal cash to pay for it. Their reasons were probably both fiscal and political: you don't turn down billions in federal funds to help your citizens get insurance (especially since the alternative would have been a great many of those insureds ending up in emergency rooms uninsured, with the state liable for the tab). It's also noteworthy that Barack Obama carried Florida and Ohio and both Scott and Kasich must run for re-election in 2014.

To the base, this is betrayal, not pragmatic governance. But conservative governors around the country are making similar compromises while slashing budgets and cutting taxes in an effort to spur economic growth. Accepting Obamacare cash is giving them the flexibility to cut their health care costs and apply the savings to create an inviting economic climate that will bring businesses and jobs into their states.

It's a formula for electoral success -- a point that appears lost on those conservatives who believe purity is preferable to winning. Ramesh Ponnuru, writing for Bloomberg View, asks whether conservatives were interested in winning elections and policy battles anymore. After citing the Christie CPAC snub, the effort to defeat Chuck Hagel, and a threat to primary House members who failed to vote on a more radical budget proposal than Paul Ryan's plan, Punnuru writes:

In each of these episodes, some Republicans have seemed to dislike one another more than they like defeating Democrats and enacting conservative policies. After elections in which conservatives attracted the allegiance of only a minority of voters, they have reacted by trying to kick people out rather than bring people in. (You can see the same impulse at work among Republican critics of religious conservatives.)

Indeed, Karl Rove's effort to vet GOP candidates, testing them for what he considers their chances of winning, is equally self-defeating and recklessly imprudent. Rove and his rich friends, sitting in Washington or New York or California, have little idea of what it takes to win a congressional race in Texas or North Carolina. And if they can divine the future and predict if a candidate will say something goofy or make a major gaffe, then they should probably be picking stocks or playing the ponies rather than telling the rest of the party who they should be running in primaries.

Some mistake Rove's effort as a bid to quash "true" conservatives and hand-pick candidates who will water down the message. Rove is not stupid. He knows his candidates need the support of the Tea Party to win. More to the point, rather than weakening the message, Rove and the reformers in the establishment are seeking to recalibrate a conservative narrative so that it speaks to ordinary people in much the same way that the Democrats have recalibrated liberalism.

If you listen to a Democrat on national television today, you are struck with how they frame every issue they address. In addition to "the family," "the middle class," and "the children," there is an overall theme of "community" the permeates their rhetoric -- the notion that "we're all in this together."

It's a mirage, but an effective one. They couch their radical ideas in the comforting words of moderation and unity. President Obama has mastered this narrative and, coupled with the general incoherence on the right, has been able to portray conservatives as the antithesis of community -- selfish, greedy, out for the rich or for themselves.

Conservatism is organized around  a set of principles. There is no issue, no personality, no feud, no difference in temperament, region, or habits of mind that can alter that fact. How those principles are perceived is where the schism occurs. The divisions on the right are wholly the result of a refusal by all sides to grant legitimacy to how conservative principles are interpreted and put into practice by others. And the divisions are made worse by the urge to purge those who don't adhere to a particular orthodoxy that purports to represent the one, true conservative vision.

There won't be anything coherent coming out of CPAC. Perhaps the right is destined to wander in the political wilderness until brought to its senses by either electoral disaster or a strong leader. Most would prefer the latter.

Don't miss Next Generation's members-only coverage of CPAC 2013 -- featuring former Congressman Allen West and Michelle Fields. Click here to learn more.