“So, what are you selling?”
The man with me in the elevator was dressed like a cowboy, assuming he was from somewhere in Europe and had never seen a real cowboy. He looked at me, smiling through his rhinestone sunglasses while his friends chuckled at his question.
“I don’t suppose I’m selling anything, sir” I answered.
“Well hell son, why are you here then?” he replied.
“I suppose I’m here to be sold something.”
“And what are you being sold?” The man took off his sunglasses.
“I suppose I’m being sold the American Dream.”
The group laughed, and stepped out of the elevator. As they walked away, the cowboy said over his shoulder, “I hope that works out for you, kid.”
This past weekend, while most Cornellians were finishing prelims and packing for various ports-of-call around the country in celebration of that magical time of year known as “Spring Break,” I—and thousands of other conservatives—headed to Washington, D.C. to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference, more commonly known as CPAC.
"What is CPAC," you ask?
To quote Kobe Bryant (and, coincidentally, Newt Gingrich), “I wish we knew.”
I am not ashamed to admit that I was a CPAC virgin. As such, I decided that prior to walking through the doors of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, I needed to do my research about what might await. First, the basics: CPAC was conceived in 1973 by a group of individuals who would become the American Conservative Union (ACU). They determined that it was necessary to create an event that could rally like-minded conservatives together around one cause. In order to inspire their fellows, they would invite the biggest names in the Republican Party to speak at their event, the first being then-governor Ronald Reagan (in 1974). From that point on, CPAC grew to become the behemoth that it is today, with thousands of attendees enjoying a schedule brimming with lectures from the most well-known conservative figures in the country. Furthermore, CPAC serves as a rallying point—a place where conservatives can come together and strengthen their bonds. Upon leaving, individuals theoretically go back to their respective corners of the nation reinvigorated, ready to champion the conservative cause while knowing that thousands of others are doing the same. In this way, we can each make a difference.
This is the message put forth by the ACU on the CPAC website, and who is to tell them that they are wrong? Certainly not me, the CPAC virgin. After reading all of this, I could not help but be excited for the event. I thought, I may reflect upon this weekend years from now, and realize that I bore witness to the reigniting of an entire political party—that I was there when the GOP rose from the ashes of November 2012 and emerged to become a beacon for an increasingly fragile base of conservatives. I sincerely hoped this to be true.
I suppose this is where a modicum of irony is to be found in relation to the current state of my weathered relationship with the Republican Party: I was going to CPAC 2013 hoping for change.
I wish I would have ended my CPAC 2013 research on the webpage of the event itself. As is the case with any large gathering of Republicans, it did not take long for the media to gather like optimistic vultures soaring high above the fray on self-righteous thermals, waiting to swoop down and attack at any sign of weakness. And weaknesses they had found. The ACU decided not to invite New Jersey governor Chris Christie to speak at the event this year. They also declined two groups of LGBT conservatives known as GOProud and the Log Cabin Republicans a seat at the table, a decision which has caused several individuals to withdraw support for CPAC. In fact, it seemed easier to find more opinions on people that were NOT invited to the event than on those that were.
However, the media has quite often proved themselves to be less than trustworthy when it comes to unbiased reporting of right-leaning political events. I decided I would do my best to maintain my unabashed enthusiasm for what would surely be a wonderful weekend spent forging new friendships and reigniting my conservative fire.
I arrived at the Gaylord National Resort on Wednesday night, the eve of the convention. After checking into our room, my fellow travellers and I (Cornell Review Editor Noah Kantro and retired editor Lucas Policastro) decided to do a little pre-game exploring. As we walked around the site, I couldn’t help but marvel at the sheer size of it all. It was during our walk down CPAC’s radio row that I saw the first of many potential warning signs that things may not end up the way I pictured them.
“Man, the NRA is pretty well represented,” Noah commented. They weren’t the only ones.
“Have you ever heard of ‘The Tea Party Network’ before?” I asked.
Lining radio row, the biggest and gaudiest sets were being set up for no less than six different outlets affiliating themselves with either the NRA or the Tea Party. They were also being placed in the most prime real estate positions: right next to the entrances of the main ballroom, where all of the biggest speeches and panels would be conducted, and where every attendee would be sure to see them. The only question was whether they were in those prime real estate positions because CPAC was trying to push them on people, or because CPAC was catering to its audience.
The rest of the weekend was a typical convention blur, with numerous highs and lows. It was incredible to see a huge turnout of conservatives under the age of 25, yet it was embarrassing to see how they acted in the hotel lobby around 1 am. It was great to see how many members of the new media were represented, yet it was unsettling to see how many were fostering and spreading extremist views.
There were some truly amazing speakers, such as Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Mia Love, Tim Scott, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Newt and Callista Gingrich, and the reemergence of Willard Mitt Romney. It bothered me that these great speakers were forced to share the stage with the likes of Donald Trump, Michelle Bachman, and Sarah Palin. I very much enjoyed seeing panel discussions on intellectual property law and an all-female panel that played out like a conservative version of ‘The View.’ On the other hand, there were panels that were so awful that they bordered on offensive, such as the panel on immigration reform, and the now-infamous panel “How to Trump the Race Card: Are You Sick and Tired of Being Called a Racist and You Know You’re Not One?” which espoused the virtues of proving your commitment to diversity by simply telling people that you are a ‘Fredrick Douglass Republican.’ For the record, this discussion was not sponsored by CPAC; rather, it was sponsored by the Tea Party Patriots.
In essence, this is what the overriding theme of CPAC became. We were bearing witness to the split in the Republican Party between the GOP and the Tea Party, with one side stubbornly sticking to its old ways and the other seeking a more aggressive and confrontational approach. For me, it was extremely awkward and more than a bit sad, because in all honesty I don’t care for either of them. I was left with an existential dilemma. CPAC 2013 was breaking my heart, and it forced me to question whether there was anyone out there that I could believe in.
At 10:00 am on the last day of the convention, I got my wish.
When I first heard about him, I was sure that Dr. Ben Carson was just a new flavor-of-the-month for the conservative media. I had heard that he spoke during President Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast, and that he used his time to take subtle shots at some of the President’s initiatives. I just assumed it would be a matter of time before either the GOP or the Tea Party would get their hands on him and parade him around as their new symbol. I also assumed that CPAC 2013 would be his grand unveiling, and that within the first five minutes of his speech I would be able to tell who got to him first.
Then Dr. Carson spoke. It didn’t take five minutes. Within the first two I was convinced that this man was not looking for media attention, he was not selling anything, and he was definitely not dishing out the same tired lines of the GOP or the Tea Party. Dr. Carson is something all-together new, and provided a voice for the people who feel just like me.
CPAC 2013 was the official debut of the Carson Conservative.
Judging by the response of the people in the audience, Dr. Carson’s message resonated in a way unlike that of the Tea Party. I struggle with a way to put this delicately, so let’s just say that I believe Dr. Carson will be embraced more by people who read than by those who watch TV. I do not know if Dr. Ben Carson will run for President in 2016. What I do know is that he has provided a blueprint for how educated conservatives can speak their minds and put forth new, common-sense ideas without having to resort to the aggressive tactics of the Tea Party or the worn-down methods of the GOP.
CPAC 2013 did its best to deliver upon its promises. For those that identify most with the Tea Party, there was plenty to be excited about. GOP supporters were likely to have enjoyed the convention as well. Even people with political identity crises like myself were provided with something to rally around.
On Saturday afternoon, I tried to find the cowboy from the elevator to let him know that I had found what I was looking for, and had been sold on Dr. Ben Carson. Eventually I found him walking around alone, looking slightly disheveled and not at all pleased. Perhaps there was no one at the convention willing to buy what he was selling. Maybe he was unable to find someone to sell him what he was looking for. Either way, I decided not to share my news with him. As I learned with Dr. Carson, the best discoveries are those that are made on your own.
Mike Navarro is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at email@example.com.