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Right-Wing Disunity? Clashes at This Year's Conservative Political Action Conference

If there was any unifying theme to this year's conference, it was conflict between different factions on the Right.
 
 
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WASHINGTON, D.C -- If there was any unifying theme to this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, it was the disunity of the Right. Just ask Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who were treated to a little shock and awe, booed and heckled mercilessly when the former presented the latter -- in all seriousness -- with the Defender of Liberty Award.

The shout-down came mostly from supporters of Ron Paul, the Texas congressman whose perennial presidential campaign draws enthusiastic support from the young libertarians so heavily represented at CPAC, thanks to conference organizers' outreach to college students. Paul opposes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The strong showing of young people at CPAC is believed to be at least partly responsible for Paul's win of CPAC's annual presidential straw poll, which he won with 30 percent of the vote. (Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who also spoke at the conference, came in second, with 23 percent.) CPAC officials said 11,000 attended the conference; some 3,700 participated in the straw poll.

David Keene, the long-serving president of CPAC's organizing group, the American Conservative Union, said he thought bringing in the Paul contingent was a good thing for the conservative movement. "One thing Ron Paul did in the course of his presidential campaign -- and I'm not a Ron Paul supporter -- but he energized kids. And a lot of them are here. And I want those kids, because they believe in most of the things that I believe in...."

Since the mid-1990s, CPAC has been a major organizing ground for young conservatives, a deliberate strategy by Keene and his supporters.

Keene's approach has long focused on enlarging the right-wing coalition; it was on his watch that GOProud, a Republican gay and lesbian group, first became a CPAC sponsor last year. But Keene's big-tent approach may end with the close of his tenure at ACU. He's stepping down to retire. Filling his position will be Al Cardenas, who told Tim Mak at FrumForum that "it’s going to be difficult to continue the relationship" with GOProud.

GOProud's inclusion at the conference drew the consternation of such old-line right-wing institutions as the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council, which boycotted the conference in response, along with potential GOP presidential contenders Mike Huckabee and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.

Schlafly: Marriage Equality Leads to Child Marriage

Indeed, ACU appears to have been swayed by its old social conservative friends, such as Phyllis Schlafly, who served as master of ceremonies at the CPAC gala. At a panel discussion following the showing of the Citizens United film, Fire in the Heartland, Schlafly sat next to Cleta Mitchell, chairman of the ACU Foundation. Mitchell talked about how, before her conversion to conservatism, she used to think Schlafly's anti-feminist rhetoric to be nothing but scare tactics. But now, she said, she recognized Schlafly as a woman of vision.

Mitchell recounted a discussion with Schlafly over "whether or not we should have GOProud as a participating organization at CPAC." She continued, "One of the things that Phyllis said...is when you take away the commitment that we have as conservatives -- and as a country, as a society -- to traditional marriage -- marriage as being defined as one man and one woman -- when you take that away, it opens the door to not just the breakdown of the family, the elimination of the family, the polygamy, forced, arranged marriages, child marriages... the whole multicultural issues that come about because, well, we just can't say that this is what we think is right for society because somebody might be offended by that."

GOProud Chairman Chris Barron told Chris Geidner of Metro Weekly, a Washington, D.C., LGBT publication, that Mitchell was "a nasty bigot," only to apologize a day later.

Right-wing media sensation Andrew Breitbart -- king of the deceptively doctored video -- co-sponsored a party with GOProud on Friday night, featuring lesbian singer Sophie B. Hawkins. Party-goers received stickers reading, "OUR GAYS ARE MORE MACHO THAN THEIR STRAIGHTS."

Meanwhile, Ann Coulter got in on the act during a question-and-answer session after her podium presentation. Calling herself "a friend of the gays," Coulter said, "there is something to being gay apart from the sodomy." She then called for the inclusion of gay groups in the conservative movement simply because, she said, it's assumed that gays should be liberal. "The Left is trying to co-opt gays, and I don't think we should let them," Coulter said. "They should be on our side. We're for low taxes, we're against crime, we're against the terrorists who want to kill gays. Gays are natural conservatives."

One might consider such divisions good news for Democrats, if only Democrats had ever displayed any appetite for the sort of wedge-driving politics routinely practiced against them by Republicans. Yet, in the wake of Barack Obama's historic presidential victory in 2008, there does seem to be some fear among the right-wing Republican leaders who put together CPAC that infighting could lead to less than victorious results in next year's presidential and congressional contests.

Bachmann Appeals for Unity

After the requisite round of Obama-bashing, including the routine accusation that there's a socialist occupying the White House, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., opened CPAC with a rousing speech imploring right-wingers to stick together. "We cannot shun each other in 2012," she said.

Calling for victory in 2012, and inviting all attendees to a reception she hosted later that day, Bachmann shouted, "Let's party!"

Even if you missed her opening gambit, it was hard to miss Bachmann if you stayed at CPAC for any length of time. Many of the people who sought to shake her hand at her reception waited on a line the length of a corridor in order to do so. The next day, she appeared on a panel sponsored by Citizens United, the movie-producing group for which the infamous Supreme Court case, which opened the spigot of corporate cash into election campaigns, is named. Throughout the day, she popped up here and there, shaking hands in the lobby, taking her turn before the cameras of Pajamas Media. Nonetheless, she mustered only 4 percent of the vote in CPAC's straw poll.

The Koch Brothers Solidify Their Grip

Bachmann is a regular speaker at events sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, the astroturf group funded by oil magnate David Koch, who, with his brother, Charles, runs Koch Industries, one of the nation's biggest polluters. As AlterNet has chronicled for several years, the Kochs are putting their billions behind politicians who will advance their anti-regulatory agenda, and arraying those dollars against those who would stand in their way. In addition to their funding of Americans for Proserity, the Kochs fund legions of organizations and individuals that deny the scientific evidence for climate change.

A standard part of anti-Obama attacks delivered by Koch-sponsored pols is a diatribe against the Environmental Protection Agency and energy reform. Bachmann, never one to be outdone, delivered, decrying the Obama administration's energy policy, especially proposed new EPA regulations affecting carbon emissions. Bachmann also complained about regulations barring drilling and natural gas extraction in protected areas.

"We are the Saudi Arabia of energy right here," Bachmann said. "We just can't access it."

Bachmann wasn't the only Koch-sponsored pol to address the three-day conference. Following Bachmann to the CPAC platform was Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., who defeated Sen. Russ Feingold with oodles of help -- including some dirty tricks -- from Americans for Prosperity.

No surprise that Johnson's themes were carbon (cough) copies of Bachmann's. "The EPA…is out of control," Johnson said, going on to complain that the agency seeks to regulate waste and spillage from the dairy industry, which he described as spilled milk.

What is surprising is that this guy, who never before ran for elected office, could get elected to anything. He's just that awful at the podium. At one point, he lost his place in his speech, and instead of riffing from the heart, he made his audience wait while he found his place in his script, which was delivered from paper, what with the self-imposed teleprompter ban in vogue at conservative gatherings these days.

In fact, I'd venture to say, there's no way this guy would have won office without the help of Americans for Prosperity, whose activists backed him over more authentic Tea Party candidates, and then involved itself in a voter-caging scheme apparently designed to suppress the votes of African Americans and college students in Milwaukee.

Johnson falsely accused the Obama administration for launching an attack on doctors, and then went on to tell the story of the valiant doctors who saved his daughter's life when she was an infant. This is a classic feature of conservative narrative creation: make a false assertion about the other side, and then use a true story to refute it.

The Wisconsin senator lamented that when he was a child, "we were taught to look up to doctors and other successful people." He continued, "Now some are demonizing success."

Doctors, he said, are "producers." This is a paean to the Right's old song of producerism, a favorite of the John Birch Society, co-founded by David Koch's father, Fred. In their book Right-Wing Populism, Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons describe producerism as "a doctrine that champions the so-called producers in society against both 'unproductive' elites and subordinate groups defined as lazy or immoral."

Johnson is a millionaire who, until his election to Senate, ran Pacur, a plastics manufacturing business he co-founded. A producer, for sure.

Also representing the Koch faction of the GOP -- which, these days, is looking like most of the GOP -- was Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, also of Wisconsin (now known as Midwest Kochistan). Ryan, selected by House Speaker John Boehner to deliver the Republican response to the State of the Union address, appeared at the gathering of political big-wigs sponsored by the foundations of billionaires Charles and David Koch in Palm Springs, California, two weeks ago. Ryan was awarded Americans for Prosperity's "Defender of the American Dream" state-level honor in 2008, conferred upon him by Mark Block, who, until December, was AFP's state director in Wisconsin.

Block turned up at CPAC in the company of Hermain Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, who is considering a presidential run. Cain is also a favorite at events sponsored by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, and is a spokesperson for a program promoted by AFPF, Prosperity 101. Block is now Cain's chief of staff.

Breitbart Carries Kochs' Water

Andrew Breitbart, the disgraced impresario known for presenting doctored video on his Web sites, devoted most of his Saturday morning keynote to bashing the progressive protesters who showed up at January's Koch confab in Palm Springs. Breitbart painted the Koch brothers as honorable capitalists and beneficent philanthropists demonized by progressives in search of a "counter-narrative" to the Right's "exposure" of George Soros, the billionaire who funds numerous progressive causes.

In truth, the Right's attack on Soros has become a frantic barrage since progressive media outlets began exposing the role of the Kochs in advancing the thuggery of right-wing activists at the August 2009 congressional town-hall meetings. So far, the Right's attack on Soros, as advanced by Koch water-carrier Glenn Beck, exists largely of a falsification of Soros' personal story of surviving the Holocaust, dressed up in language drawn from Mein Kampf.

In Breitbart's version of the progressive protest, he appears as a heroic figure on roller blades, occupying a "DMZ" between "riot police" and rowdy protesters whom he described as "intimidating." Most interesting, perhaps, was how Breitbart's remarks demonstrated the degree to which the women of CodePink have gotten under his skin. Another of his heroic exploits, as he described them, was a protest he says he staged outside the home of CodePink co-founder Jodie Evans during a fundraiser she hosted for California Gov. Jerry Brown during the election campaign.

The women of CodePink, Breitbart said, are "tedious at this point, and boring."

"They're not even good-looking anymore," Breitbart complained. "It used to be like they were kind of slutty lefties who I could imagine at a party," he said, waving his hands in such a way as to lead one to wonder just what he was imagining himself doing at the same hypothetical party. "They're getting long in the tooth," said the paunchy entrepreneur.

Breitbart portrayed the slogan, "No justice, no peace," as a violent threat, and said of the progressives gathered outside the Koch event, "They're not American; they're animals." The room erupted in applause.

Before the conference ended, Breitbart was served on site with papers notifying him he was being sued by Shirley Sherrod, the subject of a smear campaign launched on one of Breitbart's Web sites. Last summer Breitbart aired selectively edited video designed to make Sherrod, an African American who was then a USDA official, appear to be advocating racism when, in fact, she was telling of her personal journey away from prejudice.

Meanwhile, in the exhibit hall, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation had its own booth promoting an internship for college students, as well as a career-development program for young professionals. A flyer for the internship program, called Liberty Rocks, features a photograph of an electric guitar with a sticker on it that reads, "I [Heart] HAYEK." Friedrich von Hayek authored The Road to Serfdom, a 1943 book hawked by Glenn Beck. "Gain experience in a substantive role within a think tank, policy institute, or grassroots organization that works to advance liberty," the flyer reads. Estimated translation: Get your start at the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute or Americans for Prosperity -- all beneficiaries of the Kochs' largess.

Allen West (the Other Black Guy) Wraps Up Conference

Rep. Allen West wrapped up the final evening of this year's Conservative Political Action Conference with a sternly delivered speech that offered little that was new, but rather a laundry list of right-wing complaints, laments and threats familiar to all in attendance.

As a reminder of his own military background, West began by inviting up to the stage a young army officer, Sgt. Jason Albans, who trains those who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns. "The reason I'm here is because I have a bigger fear for my future than I did with the fear that I felt back in Baghdad," Albans said. "I believe in the colonel," he said, speaking of West.

A retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, West was relieved of his command for his abuse of a detainee in Iraq. For the Tea Party crowd, that's not exactly a minus. In fact, tonight West asserted that he has a "problem with imprisoning our own warriors for killing terrorists."

West, an African American, then set himself up as a sort of anti-Obama, railing against the president's agenda on issues ranging from health-care reform to the START treaty with Russia. He relentlessly attacked what he called "the vile onslaught" of the Left, while assuring his audience that he understood their pain. "You have endured the relentless and hostile attacks from the liberal Left, such as being called racists," he said. "Perhaps they should see who's standing here as your keynote speaker." He also hailed the the mission of the CPAC crowd. "You said that you would not allow your country to be cast into perpetual dust while the sun set on the ideals of American exceptionalism," he told them.

He warned against what he called "multiculturalism on steroids," which, he said, imperils "the definitive American culture." He continued, "When tolerance becomes a one-way street, it leads to cultural suicide."

West was initially considered a long shot in his race against incumbent Democrat Ron Johnson. Backed by the Tea Party movement, West rose to prominence with his in-your-face, often accusatory rhetoric -- aimed even at his fans -- and the right's producerist theme. At an October campaign appearance (video), West told cheering supporters, "In America today, you've got a class warfare that's going on. You've got a producing class and you've got an entitlement class...."

"These people are living amongst us," West explained during his campaign appearance, "and if we are not willing to take a stand right now, and take this country back, and put it back on the right track of the principles and values it was established upon, you're complicit." Pointing at people in the audience, he added, "It's your fault, it's your fault, it's your fault up there. It's okay to come in here to cheerlead, but you better understand that it's a fight, and you better be willing to fight for this country."

That was then; this is now. No pointing at the CPAC audience. Still, even after winning a seat in Congress, West appears to require a sense of being embattled in order to maintain the defiant stance that got him elected. And so tonight at CPAC he mentioned Politico's rating of his seat as "vulnerable" to Democratic challenge, and won the crowd by saying, "Standing here before each and every one of you, I don't feel so vulnerable."

He said the "liberal media" would continue to "attack" him, and then dared them to continue. He spoke with pride of having been named a "worst person" five times by former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann. "And he got fired for it," West said, which is something more than an exaggeration. Nevertheless, the CPAC crowd loved him for it. (What's a little lie between patriots?)

West declared that he would "never let Israel down." He spoke of America's "Judeo-Christian culture" and declared himself pro-life, saying, "I don't believe that having a baby is a punishment." He called for a reduction of the corporate tax rate to 20 percent, and for the repeal of the health-care reform law.

It was often difficult to hear West over the roar of the crowd. However defiant his attitude, West's delivery was more measured and less fiery than it was on the campaign trail. He continued to stand by radio talk show host Joyce Kaufman, whom West had named as chief of staff for his congressional office -- until a public outcry convinced him to dismiss her. (Kaufman once called for the hanging of undocumented immigrants who commit crimes.)

West's selection could be seen as a desire by CPAC leaders to prove the inclusiveness of their conference. Just before the results of CPAC's presidential poll were announced, a conference public relations official made the rounds of the media room to let us know that David Keene, the chairman of the CPAC's sponsoring organization, the American Conservative Union, would be available later in the evening to answer reporters' questions. "There will be a press availability after the Herman Cain speech," he said. "Herman Cain?" I asked. Cain had spoken the day before. "Yes," he replied, "after Herman Cain."

"Don't you mean Allen West?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah -- I meant Allen West."

Herman Cain, also African American, spoke from the CPAC stage on Friday. Oops....

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.