By Reed Galen

Last week I attended my first Conservative Political Action Conference, sponsored by the American Conservative Union. Most of the requisite party convention window dressing was on display: a women on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam and men dressed in Revolution garb foremost among them.

I went for a number of reasons, but specifically to find out what conservative activists, and CPAC is billed as the largest gathering of them, see as the path forward for the GOP and the right in general. I was first surprised by how dominated the event is by young people – and by young I mean schools of College Republicans from across the country as excited to be there as most of their cohort would be on spring break.

Although young, most of them were well informed and to a large extent, thoughtful on their views of the Republican Party and conservatism. Given their age, it is not surprising that many of them expressed views more in line with the GOP’s rising libertarian wing. They overwhelmingly felt Republicans need to change with the times. Their sentiments were summed up by one young man who told me, “You don’t have social issues if you don’t have an economy.”

Jobs and education were foremost in their mind, and ready and willing to stand for their ideals – “the fight is always worth the fight,” said another CR from Florida. One young man from North Carolina considered himself among the very lucky that he already had a job lined up after graduation - many of his classmates are not so fortunate.

But while they feel strongly about their core principles, the youth contingent appeared to have a much clearer idea of what it takes to actually get something done in politics. I mentioned that that compromise is often seen as a four-letter word. “Compromise is a great thing,” one said. “Not everyone is going to be happy all the time.”

Not everyone at CPAC believed as the college kids do. Many of the potential 2016 candidates made their way to the main stage to exhort the crowds to action – to stand and fight for their beliefs. And while many of the candidates gave lip service to being ‘for something’ instead of ‘against everything’ most pushed that out of the way early and got right to the butcher’s block of excoriating the President and Obamacare.

And many of the speeches felt over-thought and highly tactical for nearly two years before any Republican primary voters go to the polls. Most of them, Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Marco Rubio, Congressman Paul Ryan and Governor Chris Christie all had specific holes they were trying to fill. Cruz offered up a 10-point plan. Rubio focused on foreign policy in light of the current situation in Ukraine, Ryan downplayed the party’s internal fissures and Christie made sure the crowd knew he stood firmly in the pro-life camp.

Paul Ryan’s speech interested me because of how far he went to express the current divide between the wings of the party (I like others now count four), was more like an ‘Irish family reunion,’ that we share common goals but different tactics, was almost exactly the same language Speaker John Boehner used when speaking to Jay Leno about the divide between the Establishment and the Tea Party. The old axiom of ‘if you have to say it out loud it’s probably not true,’ was hanging on a marquee about the stage.

During a break in the action reporter asked me if I thought that Rubio was hitting foreign policy as a way to take some bark off of Senator Rand Paul. I told him, “Ukraine is the issue today. And it might be an issue for a while. But if anyone thinks hitting Rand Paul on foreign policy in March 2014 is going to doom his prospects, they’re calculus is off.”

Speaking of Rand Paul, he far and away had the most enthusiastic, and outright raucous reception as he took the stage. During the course of his remarks he had half a dozen standing ovations and every applause line pushed the dial to 11 on the volume knob.

What I thought was most striking about Paul’s remarks, though, were their insistence on building a base of core principles, not tactics, but actual beliefs from which any number of issues could be addressed later on. That, and the fact he quoted (with attribution) Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, it was also the most interesting speech.

During his 15 or so minutes, Paul made the philosophical case for small government conservatism and libertarianism that most Americans, on the surface, would probably agree with. Utilizing the visual and physical reality that everyone in the place was had a direct line to the NSA on account of holding their cell phone, “It’s none of their damn business!” was the line of the day.

All in all, CPAC was a good slice of what conservatives are thinking and feeling – but through the lens of the kids’ table. We should not discount this growing (and growing up) faction within the conservative movement, however. They soon will be our volunteers, and our campaign workers. Soon after that, they’ll be our candidates. And in our lifetimes, they’ll be our leaders. We would do well to let them be the point of the spear as we move forward.

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AuthorReed Galen