There's a moment every year at the Conservative Political Action Conference when some eminence from the 1970s talks about the good old days at CPAC, hearkening back to the time when Ronald Reagan would show up and speak to a a small room of only about 500 activists. Things have changed. Now there are about 500 journalists who get registered to report on CPAC, which has bloated to some 10,000 participants in the fat years.
Maybe conservatism is just too big for its own good.
The conservative movement has grown large because it aspired to be something greater than a part of the Republican coalition. It wanted to become the entirety of the GOP. Instead of splitting into different interest groups, the conservative movement devises ad-hoc philosophies to integrate single-issue advocates into a larger coalition. You're not just for low taxes or against abortion, you're a conservative!
In this sense, the conservative movement has become a kind of parallel institution that drains resources, attention, talent, and energy from the GOP's own electoral and governing efforts. Conservative Inc. is an enterprise with enough resources and power to be an attractive alternative to America's official institutions of electoral power.
If you are a Republican politician and don't have the wherewithal to become president of the United States, perhaps you have enough talent to become president of Conservatism. It's an unofficial position, but has plenty of benefits. You won't have the psychic pleasures of representing the electoral will of the American public, but you also won't be burdened by any real responsibilities either.
Naturally, the idea of being a player without responsibility provides more attractions for charlatans, rabble-rousers, and opportunists.
Shades of this phenomena began in the 1990s presidential primaries. Whereas Pat Buchanan picked a principled fight with his party over issues like trade and foreign policy, candidates like Alan Keyes ran less for president than for publicity: mailing lists filled out, speaking fees increased, and radio shows picked up on more networks.
By the 2012 Republican primaries, it was obvious that there were in fact two competitions happening on the same debate stages. Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and even Newt Gingrich were not running for president in the same way that Mitt Romney and Rick Perry were.
This seems not to happen in the Democratic primaries. Sure, 2004 saw Howard Dean emerge as the leader of "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." But there is no parallel universe called Liberalism where he and Mike Gravel could become well-paid industries unto themselves as think leaders, book hawkers, and distinguished dinner guests. Dean became chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a political job with actual responsibilities and geared toward winning elections, not just flame wars.
The composition of the Democratic coalition seems stronger precisely because it is more splintered and more issue driven. No one is afraid that Planned Parenthood or the teachers' unions are going to impose a broad-ranging ideological revolution on the nation. The public assumes that they will simply lobby for their particular, limited interests and that the party to which they belong will have a moderating effect on them.
But the conservative movement really is large enough to exert a destabilizing gravitational force on the entire political culture. Its opponents fear that its size and strength make the GOP immoderate. And they may be right.
In any GOP presidential primary, the candidates who are running to be unofficial head of the conservative movement can do a great deal of damage to the GOP's eventual nominee. They can pressure the eventual candidate to over-commit to the right in the primary race, essentially handing them more baggage to carry in the general election. Or they can cripple the eventual primary winner by highlighting the nominee's deviations from the movement, dispiriting the GOP's base of voters.
When the attendees of CPAC gather in Washington early next month and conduct their presidential straw poll with the self importance of a warning shot, it might profit them to consider whether they intend to elect a new president of their ideological ghetto or one for their nation.