For the politically active on the Right, Spring Break came early. Last weekend, over ten thousand conservatives descended on Washington, D.C. for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. They packed the capital’s largest hotel complex for the most scrutinized political gathering in a non-convention year. For three days a who’s-who line up of conservative Republicans and not-so-unannounced 2012 primary contenders rallied the largely college-aged crowd.
Then, on Saturday, the Right’s newest frat boy took the stage. To cheers and applause, Glenn Beck offered the keynote address—a potpourri of anti-Obama vitriol, bipartisan criticism, and personal anecdotes. But as Professor Beck leapt from the podium to his beloved chalkboard, reading glasses perched low on his nose, he lambasted the calls for a return to a “Big Tent” party, asking sardonically, “What is this, a circus?” And in one sentence he did more damage than most speakers can in a whole speech.
The problem with those who denounce Reaganesque Big Tentism is twofold. First, to condemn is to invite electoral impotence. It is neither a strategy for winning elections nor a recipe for good governance. Scott Brown did not win in Massachusetts by appealing to a narrow conservative base. The congressional Republicans of the 1990s did not pass welfare reform by refusing to compromise with Bill Clinton.
Second, and maybe more significantly, ridiculing a big tent party masks the truth and jeopardizes the party’s future. It prevents those on the outside from seeing that the Tent truly is big, inclusive, and dynamic. It validates James Carville when he proclaims “Reagan’s Big Tent has collapsed.” It allows The Wall Street Journal to summarize the CPAC weekend as highlighting a “split” in the party. But these assessments and our easy acceptance of them are wrong. The party has its inclusivity problems, but even CPAC 2010 was a surprisingly Big Tent if you took the time to notice.
Sure, from the outside, CPAC appears to be an exercise in narrow-minded dogmatic groupthink, offering little for thoughtful discussion and more than enough material for late-night lampooning. The speakers typically spoon-feed an eager audience exactly what they paid to hear. Romney for President 2.0. Revolutionary Storytelling with Michele Bachmann. An Excoriation of Woodrow Wilson by Dr. Ron Paul: Or, Why Warren Harding was a Great Man. (Maybe not so much that one.)
But while panelists defended Bush-era security policy, an anti-war reception was filled to capacity. The audience enthusiastically greeted a surprise visit from Dick Cheney, even as others railed against the Patriot Act his team crafted. Activists defended the legalization of marijuana in the hallways, and a new group called Whole Life sought to expand the pro-life movement into one with a larger social justice message. In the Exhibition Hall two booths down from the National Organization for Marriage, members of GOProud advocated for gay rights. And this wasn’t voluntary cognitive dissonance. It was the marketplace of ideas at work. It was a Big Tent.
And here’s the irony: the man who championed the Big Tent is the one Beck and company most exalt. Any good CPAC speech pays tribute to the Great Communicator, but while Ronald Reagan was certainly principled, he was never needlessly divisive. He knew that the politics of division obscures the truth and ensures newcomers never come in; It says quite unequivocally to outsiders, “Stay out!” But while I’ll argue that CPAC is more diverse than some portray it, the obvious truth still remains: the Republican Party falls short with minorities, with youth, with the coastal intelligentsia. And divisive, purist language ensures that the GOP remains caricatured as the domain of southern white males.
Now I do give Beck some credit. The comment in question served as a segue into an indictment of Republicans who broke campaign promises and voters’ trust. But even if such language is simply a starting point for a more nuanced position on adhering to fiscal responsibility, it matters little. The sound bite is recorded, the message sent, and the damage done. Though to be fair, Glenn Beck is neither a politician nor a strategist. He does not need to concern himself with electioneering or governing. He bills his eponymous show as “the fusion of entertainment and enlightenment.” And that means that he is a Party of One without consequence.
But the GOP cannot. Obama’s plummeting popularity has made right wing commentators overconfident. Independents have discovered why they dislike Democrats, but that does not mean they have cause to love Republicans again. The GOP has to represent more than the lesser of two evils. The party needs to grow and evolve, and telling new voters and fresh candidates they’re unwelcome will ensure they pitch a tent elsewhere.
So here’s the message, especially to those indecisively sitting in the Middle: though it must grow, the GOP Tent is bigger than you think. Don’t believe me? Come on in and see for yourself. You’re always welcome.
Mark A. Isaacson ’11 is a government concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.