CPAC Sends Founding Fathers Spinning

Everywhere you looked at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington this year, there was Lady Liberty, an eagle soaring, a patriot with fife and drum and a tri-cornered hat.

Freedom – everyone and everything declared – was under assault. According to the three-day schedule, it was under attack by socialists, unions, the taxman, pro-choice liberals, global-warming hoaxers, fascists, feminists, and so-called Obamacare. In no uncertain terms, freedom needed saving.

For this, the Founding Fathers were invoked – many, many times.

Waxing about the epic choice between "greatness or decline," Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) managed to conflate Republican bloggers in Minnesota with Revolutionary War hero Joseph Warren and ill-fated World War II chaplains all in one speech. "It sounds like to me that someone [Obama] is choosing decline. The Founders … did not choose decline. They chose us, they chose greatness."

Aside from the outlandishness and hyperbole threading through such obvious political point-scoring sermons (unfortunately, there were too many to mention here), the new and intensified focus on principles of limited government and the Constitution should have been a welcome development at CPAC. And in many ways it was. For someone who has been covering the annual conservative confab for the last decade, it was refreshing to see conservatives shedding the final vestiges of the old Bush-era excuses for bloat and hubris like so much blubber. While it might seem like a matter of political convenience, especially for those "movement" types and shrewd political aspirants who swagger and shape-shift their way through these things every year, there were plenty of young, earnest students who seemed genuinely dug-in on this front, perhaps even for the right reasons.

(Plus, if there is going to be iconography, let it be of the Founding Fathers rather than that of modern right-wing deities. Thankfully, gone were the omnipresent memorabilia of Bush in his ranch hat and flight suit. Even President Reagan, and surprisingly, Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter, were on minimum display in the exhibit hall this go-around.)

But then there comes the Big Problem. The Big Problem is not so much about what was said at CPAC, but what wasn’t. No one wanted to talk about the war or foreign policy – unless of course, the discussion involved attacking Iran, supporting Israel if it attacked Iran, or waterboarding Gitmo detainees and foiled underpants bombers. That last one was a real crowd-pleaser among the college kids.

Apparently, the idea of "limited government" does not extend to reining in the current trillion-dollar wars overseas and a defense industry that is so swollen, incestuous, and walled off from "the people" that it is immune to circumspection. For a conservative group bent on reminding us "we are a nation led by the people, and not the elites and the bureaucrats and the politicians," as declared so dramatically by Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) on Friday, they sure get the heebie-jeebies when it comes to talking about war.

"Obama is doing everything Bush did [in the war]. How do they criticize that?" pointed out Jacob Hornberger, president of the Future of Freedom Foundation, one of the handful of real libertarian groups who put up booths at CPAC this year.

They don’t. Instead they go for the real red meat. And it works every time. Obama may have taken away one of their treasured talking points when he decided not to "wave the white flag" in Afghanistan upon taking office in January 2009, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a yellow-bellied "defeat-o-crat" just the same.

As Liz Cheney, today’s reigning lady hawk, said so succinctly in her own CPAC speech, Obama "needs to stop apologizing for this great nation and start defending her."

According to Cheney, Obama doesn’t torture enough. His investigation into Bush-era interrogation policies, which have in effect foiled most of the terror prosecutions at Guantanamo Bay because lawyers cannot use coerced confessions, is an abomination. Meanwhile, Obama wants to unleash "the worst of the worst" on American towns and cities by holding them in federal penitentiaries until they get a trial – cue low grumble from the crowd – in federal court.

"Its not change we can believe in," Cheney said, mocking the old Obama campaign slogan. "It’s time for us to stand up and take this country back!"

In any other context that might have a quaint, can-do ring, but when Cheney said it – when most of these speakers said it – it sounded eerily like a declaration of civil war or jihad, whichever you prefer. Like Bachmann’s oft-repeated refrain that some of us choose "decline" while the chosen conservatives (at least those in attendance at CPAC) choose "greatness," the "either/or" and "us vs. them" is implicit. Which category one falls into is determined by where he or she stands on the issues.

Welcome to the First Amendment at CPAC – lots of free speech for everyone, except of course if you disagree.

"I’ve been called unpatriotic," offered Tracey Harmon of the libertarian Ladies of Liberty Alliance (LOLA), when asked about the CPAC’s reception to the group’s antiwar stance. This was LOLA’s first year in the exhibit hall. Apparently, everyone is cool with the whole libertarian thing – as long as they stick to talking about ending the Fed and preventing government-run health care reform – but all comity ends at national security.

Take the panel hosted by LOLA and the Campaign for Liberty on Saturday, "You’ve Been Lied To: Why Real Conservatives are Against the War on Terror." It included remarks by Hornberger,’s Phil Giraldi, Bruce Fein, and retired Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski. It was one of only three foreign-policy-related panels at CPAC this year (out of about 60 on the three-day schedule), and it elicited some very nasty critiques by the conference’s resident jihad-hunters and waterboarding enthusiasts, who apparently thought there wasn’t enough room for an opposing point of view.

Giraldi said Saturday’s session was well-received and attended, albeit mostly by Campaign for Liberty kids. "I believe that the failure of the traditional CPAC crowd to understand what is wrong with our international posture is due to the fact they cannot intellectually connect constitutionalism and the freedom agenda with foreign policy," Giraldi told me afterward.

Perhaps that is a nice way of saying that while everyone loves to wave around the Bill of Rights like a talisman, they wield it as a weapon against their perceived political enemies more than anything else. They certainly don’t seem prepared to practice what they preach. Take this line from Florida state Rep. Marco Rubio, a leading light of the so-called Tea Party movement and candidate for U.S. Senate. "There’s never been a nation like the United States, ever," he declared in a speech that had CPAC-rats nearly weeping in the aisles. "It begins with the principles of our founding documents, principles that recognize that our rights come from God, not from our government – principles that recognize that because all of us are equal in the eyes of our creator, all life is sacred at every stage of life."

You sure about that? From what I heard throughout CPAC, that must mean the "creator" has differing notions of "equal," as these "God-given" rights seem to apply differently to Republicans and Democrats, Christians and Muslims, American citizens and non-resident aliens, Anglo-Europeans and Muslim Europeans, and so forth.. It can become quite complicated.

Are You a Loyal American? CPAC Wants to Know

Almost to a man and woman, the prevailing CPAC attendee expressed near-glee when the very word "waterboard" was invoked. In fact, Liz Cheney said we ought to "give our thanks and our praise" (sounds like a Catholic mass) to the CIA officials who advanced the enhanced interrogation techniques that might have resulted in the deaths of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

In the meantime, she and others support taking away habeas and Miranda rights – from citizens, not to mention foreign terror suspects – and subjecting detainees to military courts our own military prosecutors have called rigged and unconstitutional. Golly, with the feminine lilt to her voice, motherly anecdotes, and plump morsels of seeming common sense, Cheney made torture as American as apple pie and even brought dad in for the ice cream on top.

Even worse were the CPAC events this year in which the very loyalty of Americans was questioned and entire religions were deemed a threat to global security. If there was ever a manifestation of the radical impulses of these political events, it was the simply Orwellian experience of "Jihad: the Political Third Rail," presented by the Freedom Defense Initiative, the latest venture of jihad-hunters Pamela Geller (Atlas Shrugs) and Robert Spencer (Jihad Watch).

Attendees at this "unofficial" CPAC panel (yes, even among this crowd, Geller and friends are pretty radioactive) were forced to show picture identification at the door. Bodyguards roamed the capacity crowd, some of which donned lapel pins featuring crossed American and Israeli flags (meanwhile, new Muslim-American envoy Rashad Hussain should be put to a loyalty test to see if he is Muslim or American first, suggested one panelist). and its panel of apostates were duly dismissed from the outset of the "Third Rail" forum as an "outrageous" affront to the conservative ideas held at CPAC, just before Geller and Spencer went on to blame Islam for 9/11 and charged that Islamists "have infiltrated at every level of society and every level of government" in the United States. The Koran (which Rashad Hussain has supposedly memorized – the horror!) is to blame for global terrorism. If we do not act now, went the message, Shariah law will soon prevail in the U.S.

One panelist, Wafa Sultan, who was roundly applauded when introduced as a "former Muslim," even invoked Thomas Paine’s famous quote in the midst of the American Revolution, "If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace."

"Islam is here – let’s deal with the evil of Islam right now so our future generations can live in peace," said Sultan, to a standing ovation.

Spencer proceeded to snicker at the prospect of Muslim women shrinking away from full-body airport security scanners because their faith demands modesty. Any move to accommodate them would be a "perversity," he said, because Muslims "made [full-body scanners] necessary."

"Everyone knows Islam is a religion of peace that has been hijacked by a tiny minority," Spencer said sarcastically to a room of knowing guffaws. Everyone believes that like they "believe in Santa Claus, though no one has ever seen it."

"Political correctness" will be the ruin of the nation, the panelists repeated like a mantra. Apparently, "truth is the new hate speech," lamented Geller, who has the last word on truth, along with everything else.

Fortunately, many of us still consider standing up to the government for doing things like detaining people indefinitely without charge, or presuming suspects guilty until proven innocent, or trying to prevent the persecution of an entire population based on religious beliefs, to be "constitutional correctness," plain and simple.

The Founding Fathers – who must be spinning in their graves this week – said so.

Stick that in your fife and blow.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.