Marco Rubio spoke at CPAC. Paul Ryan too. And Rick Perry, Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin. Even Donald Trump and Mitt Romney were on the program.
But not Chris Christie nor Bob McDonnell.
And that illustrates a big problem facing the Republicans.
If the GOP hopes to counter the belief it represents a narrow ideological fringe and revive its support among women, minorities and political moderates, it won’t do so by showing a public face excluding those who don’t always toe the party line.
To be sure, as American Conservative Union chairman Al Cardenas said, CPAC — the Conservative Political Action Conference — is “a conservative conference, not a Republican party event.”
But it’s a major showcase for up-and-coming Republicans that has offered a window into the GOP ever since Ronald Reagan urged the party at its 1975 conference to reject President Gerald Ford’s ideology of “pale pastels” for one of “bold colors,” foreshadowing the conservative revolution that led to his 1980 presidential victory.
Christie, the New Jersey governor whose high job support and bipartisan backing has discouraged major Democratic opposition this year, was invited in 2012 “because he did a great job in N.J. facing up to the teacher unions, balancing the budget and cutting debt,” Cardenas said in an email to Politico.
“This past year,” he added, “he strongly advocated for the passage of a $60+ billion pork barrel bill, containing only $9 billion in disaster assistance, and he signed up with the federal government to expand Medicaid when his state can ill afford it, so he was not invited to speak.”
Republicans have also been mad at Christie since he appeared with President Obama to examine Hurricane Sandy’s damage a week before the 2012 election.
McDonnell, another popular GOP state executive who like Christie is reportedly weighing a 2016 presidential bid, angered conservatives by agreeing with Virginia Democrats on a massive transportation funding measure that includes some tax increases to fix the state’s roads. He also agreed to the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion.
The irony in excluding those two governors is not only did they become GOP heroes when their 2009 victories revived party spirits after its 2008 loss but they have shown that compromise can make a Republican governor popular in blue New Jersey and purple Virginia.
National Republicans — especially those in Congress — have yet to learn that lesson. By governing as centrists, the two have broadened their support outside the GOP base, an essential ingredient for successful Republican campaigns in swing states in 2016.
In fact, 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney would have fared better against President Obama if he’d run as the moderately conservative governor he was in Massachusetts instead of moving to the right on issues like immigration and health care.
The exclusion of Republicans who dare to display even an iota of moderation from meetings like this only hardens the GOP’s image as a rigidly ideological conservative party, thus reducing its chances of regaining national power.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.
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