It’s time for one of our annual political rituals — CPAC, the American Conservative Union’s conference, begins this Wednesday. A who’s who of conservative leaders go to recite movement-friendly shibboleths, while liberal journalists generally record the panoply of crazy that inevitably seeps into the proceedings.
But 2013 is looking to be something more than spectacle. As conservatives reckon with the party’s declining electoral clout, CPAC is shaping up to become the forum in which the under-the-radar intra-conservative sniping blows up. CPAC declined to invite popular governors Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell on grounds that they were insufficiently conservative, an absurd charge that infuriated less dogmatic Republicans. The exclusion of gay group GOProud kicked off a similar dustup. It’s no civil war yet, but there certainly have been some civil skirmishes.
There’s a temptation for progressives to bask in the heat generated by the GOP’s self-immolation. The reformist camps are still weak and divided, and so long as the party keeps people like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump as members in good standing, the hyper-radicalized, anti-intellectual Republican mainstream will cater to an increasingly small part of the American electorate. It’s a recipe for inevitable progressive triumph, right?
Wrong. Progressives should want the Republican reformers to succeed in creating a party that’s both more substantively tethered to reality and, as a consequence, more electorally viable. The current Republican party is a serious threat given the structure of American politics even if it’s in long-term decline, and the benefits of it collapsing down the line are uncertain at best.