What Is It About CPAC?

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In a Q&A I held yesterday at The Hive (sub req), a reader asked (in so many words), What is it about CPAC? Every year it totally takes over the political news space. There’s wall to wall coverage. Netroots Nation, which is also held every year, and other progressive/Democratic oriented events just don’t get anywhere near the attention. So why is that?

Before going any further, let me qualify the premise. Netroots Nation drives a lot of news and I think it’s fair to say it’s now (and has been for a few years) the major progressive activist meet up in the country. It’s also worth noting that Netroots Nation has genuinely grassroots origins whereas CPAC and the American Conservative Union, which runs it, has always been more of a national powerbroker sort of affair, albeit for the conservative movement rather than the GOP. ACU has been around for almost half a century.

But with all that, yes, CPAC just gets a crazy amount of coverage. And we at TPM are certainly part of that.

So here are a few key reasons.

First, geography. I’m not sure whether I’d fully get the significance of this unless I had to make editorial and publishing budget decisions all the time. But I’d say at least half the issue is that CPAC is held everywhere in DC whereas Netroots Nation for instance gets held in a different city every year (which is a good thing). That means that for basically every news organization that covers national politics in any serious way it’s an easy and cheap decision to send at least one reporter and often many. It doesn’t cost anything. You’ve already got people in DC. So no plane flights, no hotel reservations. And if you send one or two people to these other shindigs, you’ll probably send 5 or more to CPAC. Again, big, big deal in terms of volume of press coverage.

The second reason is that DC remains, quite simply, mainly wired for Republicans. Just why that would be and how it works is a bit complicated to describe – to get more of a sense of what I’m talking about, look at this post from early 2009. This is starting to change a bit. Not so much because we’re in the second term of a Democratic presidency but more because of a growing awareness of demographic and political changes that are changing the country and thus will be changing Washington over the years to come. Still, while DC may no longer be “overwhelmingly wired for the GOP”, as I wrote in 2009, it’s still largely that way. Reporters are simply more interested as a general matter in the GOP because they’re used to thinking that’s where the power and action is. The fact that reporters, disproportionately, do not identify with the ideology doesn’t nullify this fact but paradoxically reinforces it.

But it’s the third thing that this reader’s question really got me thinking about and is I think the big driver besides where the conclave is held. In recent years, especially since Obama became President, CPAC’s wild press popularity and attention has been driven by what we might call a tacit conspiracy of derp between the event organizers and the people who cover it. You be outrageous; we’ll be outraged. And everyone will be happy. (After all, crap like this doesn’t happen by accident.) This has become even more the case as the contemporary Conservative Movement has become less a matter of ideology than a sort of performance art.

At Mother Jones Tim Murphy had this interesting article about how this year there was actually a CPAC for CPAC, a separate micro-conference at the same conference center for folks who’d proven themselves too crazy or offensive for CPAC and gotten banned. But even this, I think, partly confirms the point. A bunch of the expellees are hardcore and fairly racist Islamophobes. And while normally there’s a healthy audience for that kind of stuff among conservatives, in this case, these folks keep pushing the idea that anti-tax activist Grover Norquist is an agent of Muslim Brotherhood (yes, really …). And Norquist, in addition to having made it a pet project over the years to bring Muslim-Americans into the GOP, is one of the major powerbrokers who runs CPAC. So this was a pretty good way for these folks to get tossed out on their butts.

So there are limits. But mainly everyone’s in on the game.

And with that, who’s up for some pictures from CPAC?

Sharron Angle, 2010 Senate candidate

David Bossie, Founder, Citizens United

Dinesh D’Souza, pro-colonial activist

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