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CPAC 2009: A Focus on Freedom

CPAC 2009: A Focus on Freedom

6 Mins
June 9, 2011

March 6. 2009 -- Republicans and conservatives are not synonymous, nor are conservatives and friends of freedom. But after the 2008 Republican electoral fiasco, in large part due to their abandonment of the principles of freedom, many conservatives are recommitting themselves to those principles.

This commitment was on display at the February 26-28, 2009, Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). This event brings together conservatives and those who would make common cause with them on various issues. The first CPAC was held in 1973 with 125 participants. Ronald Reagan gave the keynote speech. In 2008 some 7,300 were in attendance; this year around 8,500 packed several ballrooms to hear the cream of the conservative crop and to show that the obituaries for the movement were premature.

The event can be viewed as an indication of what political activists will be focusing on in the future; the event gives us some hope for the future fight for freedom.


Speakers at CPAC are chosen by the event’s sponsoring organizations and reflect the different perspectives in the conservative movement.

The movement is a sometimes-uneasy, sometimes-conflicting coalition of individuals with interests in three major policy arenas. First, most economic conservatives oppose the growth of government spending, interference in the economy, and redistribution of wealth. They favor low taxes, minimal government regulations, and protection of private property. A minority of populist conservatives—Mike Huckabee, who spoke at CPAC; Pat Buchanan—favor “family-promoting” economic policies or trade protectionist policies that limit economic liberty.

Second, most foreign policy conservatives favor a strong and active national defense, in the past to oppose the spread of communism, today to counter Islamist fanaticism. A strong neo-conservative minority have favored a Wilsonian-like crusade to spread democracy. A smaller minority of traditional conservatives would reserve the use of military force for responses to direct attacks, believing other uses don’t aid our security. All factions are concerned with loss of American sovereignty through the expansion of trans-national regulations in the name of the environment or economic coordination.

Third, social conservatives, usually with religious agendas, would actually limit individual freedom in the name of protecting the moral foundations of American society. Some, like Rick Santorum—who spoke at CPAC—reject the notion that the principal role of government is to protect individual liberty, believing that state power should be used to strengthen traditional families. It is over these matters that the movement has its most internal conflicts, and they rightly concern libertarians, Objectivists, and friends of freedom.


This year’s CPAC offered a useful snapshot of the state of the conservative movement. Of the 8,500 registrants, 59 percent were 25 years old or younger, most of them students. This large number suggests a good future cadre of political activists, think-tank scholars, journalists.

74 percent said their most important goal was “to promote individual freedom by reducing the size and scope of government..."

Most interesting this year were the priorities of the attendees. A survey by Fabrizio-McLaughlin asked which one of three choices “comes closest to your core beliefs and ideology.” Of 1,757 respondents, a whooping 74 percent said their most important goal was “to promote individual freedom by reducing the size and scope of government and its intrusion into the lives of its citizens.” Only 15 percent answered “to promote traditional values by protecting marriage and protecting the unborn.” And 10 percent at most wanted “to secure and guarantee American safety at home and abroad regardless of the cost or the size of government.”

The survey then asked more specific questions. Some 27 percent identified “reducing the size of government” as the issue most important to them and 16 percent identified it as their second most important issue. Concerning “reducing government spending,” 9 percent ranked it the number one concern and 15 percent placed it second. The war on terror was most important to 12 percent, with 11 percent ranking it second. And 9 percent named “lowering taxes” as most important, with 13 percent ranking it second.

Since CPAC attendees are a self-selected group of the most passionate activists, these results are encouraging for friends of freedom. The pro-freedom convictions of conservatives are what most motivate them at this time. The prospects of unprecedented government spending and growing control of the economy by Obama and Congressional Democrats has focused their attention on this purpose more than at any time in the recent past. And the parade of speakers and panels at CPAC both emphasized the deadly seriousness of the current political and economic situation and provided much intellectual ammunition with which to fight for freedom.


The keynote speaker at the 2009 CPAC and a true rising star was Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. Ryan, whose theme was “Our Founding Principles: The Conservative Roadmap for America’s Future.”

Ryan argued that with the economy in decline in 2008 the voters punished the party in power—the Republicans. But he observes that Americans voted for sound economic policies and that Obama and the Democrats have offered an economic monstrosity. He fears that their plan “threatens to radically alter the relationship between America’s citizens and our government.” With “$56 trillion in promised entitlement spending that we haven’t funded” Ryan says such plans will “transform our entrepreneurial economy into European-style socialism.” The result: “Citizens who had governed themselves will become mere subjects of the state—more concerned about security than liberty. Once we reach this ‘tipping point,’ the friends of freedom will be reduced to silence.”

Ryan hit the moral nail on the head when he said that the kind of regime pushed by Obama and the Democrats “suffocates individual initiative and transforms self-reliance into a vice and government dependency into a virtue.”

This is a message that the friends of freedom must make Americans understand. Many conservatives see the most important moral challenge as returning to what they identify as “family values.” But most important to both individual happiness and belief in freedom is a morality of true individualism, which includes taking responsibility for one’s life and taking the initiative required to achieve one’s productive goals and personal values. A nation of dependent sheep will welcome servitude and their own enslavement, shackling the rest of us in the process.

"Sounds like something right out of an Ayn Rand novel.” -Rep. Paul Ryan

Ryan enumerated principles of the Declaration of Independence as the standards that should guide conservatives and he offered a list of priorities that he hoped would spark debate and energize the movement. Most welcome was the first one on his list: “It is time to restore the Constitution’s guarantee of sound and stable money.” In addition to federal housing policy that contributed to the current crisis, the Federal Reserve’s pumping up the monetary supply after 2001 provided the fuel for the fire. It’s time to discuss getting rid of the Fed entirely!

Ryan outlined the causes of the current crisis and denounced the Democrats’ “audacious scheme: Set off a series of regulatory blunders and congressional meddling, blame the free market for the financial crisis that follows—then use this excuse to impose a more intrusive state. Sounds like something right out of an Ayn Rand novel.”


Carrying on a theme from last year that is even more important with the White House and Congress in the hands of the radical left, this year’s CPAC highlighted the full-scale war on energy and human beings in the name of protecting the environment.

On the energy panel Niger Innis of the Congress of Racial Equality energized the audience with a stirring speech on how the poor most of all would be harmed by the “let’s cut down on use” proposals of this administration.

Another conference highlight was clips from the upcoming film, Not Evil, Just Wrong, by the Irish producer-couple Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer. Two disillusioned former leftists, the duo several years ago produced the film Mine Your Own Business, which showed the motivations of those who would stop mining companies from opening operations in less developed countries like Romania, Mozambique, and Chile as well as the terrible consequences to those countries’ people struggling to survive and to obtain the fruits of modernity.

In their new film they take on Al Gore and the global warming crowd. This film promises to be as powerful as their first. In addition to debunking the bad science behind this movement, it focuses on the sheer arrogance and disregard for people in the movement’s members. We hear, for example, actor Ed Begley Jr. saying that he’s seen the poor of Fiji and can tell by the look on their faces that they’re really happy living in their destitution. That’s not what the poor themselves say when interviewed for the film.

McElhinney and McAleer suggest a test: How many liberals would be willing to give their mothers one way tickets to live in a third-world village and cancel their moms’ passports so they can share the “happiness” forever?

The only exception one might take to Not Evil, Just Wrong is to the first part of the title.


The biggest newsmaker from this year’s CPAC was radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, whose speech was broadcast live on the Fox News Channel and C-SPAN. Rush emphasized what he’d said on his show and in this newsletter: “I want Barack Obama to fail if his mission is to restructure and reform this country so that capitalism and individual liberty are not its foundation.”

Conservatives are more focused and energized to battle for economic liberty and limited government.

In their coverage, most of the mainstream media spun the story as Rush wanting Obama to fail to fix the economy, thus leaving Americans in dire economic straits. They ignored the “if” part of his statement. The Obama White House quickly assembled had a team of old Clintonites to dub Limbaugh the real head of the Republican Party. They wanted to drive a wedge between Limbaugh’s supporters and those Republicans who think he’s too radical. This seemed one part of a Nixonian “enemy’s list” approach that targeted other critics of the administration.

So CPAC acted as a catalyst to expose the depth of commitment this president, who still has high personal approval ratings, to use any sleazy tactics to restrict freedom and remake the nation just as Limbaugh described.


While Objectivists and libertarians have philosophical disagreements with various conservatives on particular issues, this year’s CPAC suggests that conservatives are more focused and energized to battle for what too many Republicans turned their backs on during the Bush years: economic liberty and limited government. This recommitment hopefully will help the Republicans to continue to show some backbone and to begin to articulate exactly what is a stake in America today: the future fate of freedom.

Edward Hudgins


Edward Hudgins

Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.

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