Friday afternoon, I had a chance to catch up with David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, the group that runs the Conservative Political Action Conference
(CPAC) in Washington, D.C., each year.
In recent days, CPAC has come under criticism
from social conservative groups for allowing GOProud -- a gay conservative group -- to co-sponsor the event. Some conservative groups, including The Family Research Council (FRC), have even announced they are boycotting this year's gathering
because of it.
Keene acknowledged to me that he has "great admiration for [FRC President] Tony Perkins," adding, "so yeah, it troubles me that [Perkins' group is] not there."
"We hope [Perkins] will be back next year," said Keene -- "and the odds are, he might be."
Part of the problem, says Keene, is that "everyone thinks their issue is more important than everyone else's [issue]." Keene says there are some issues conservatives have come to a consensus on: "I think opposition to gay marriage is a consensus issue, now. We wouldn't team up with GOProud to push gay marriage," he said.
But that didn't mean Keene was above taking a few shots at his detractors. When Perkins recently announced the boycott in his "Washington Update" e-mail,
Perkins noted that CPAC had previously allowed groups that support "legalized marijuana" to participate. But Keene reminded me: "That was [William F.] Buckley's position."
Echoing a familiar Keene talking point, he said: "[Conservatives have] always been a fractious bunch. When there were five of us in the beginning, we'd always get into a fight."
Much of the controversy stems from different perceptions of CPAC's fundamental purpose. "I'm not afraid of other people . . . I go into the midst of liberals all the time and debate them," said Keene, implying that part of the goal of CPAC is to engage in ideological debates. But conservative leader Morton Blackwell (who sits on the board of ACU) told me: "The purpose of CPAC is to build a conservative movement -- and debates are incidental to that."
Keene argues, however, that it's important to allow various voices into the debate, because the definition of "conservative" can sometimes evolve. "The life issue was once on the table -- most conservatives were once pro-choice," he said.
"In the 30-odd years we've been in existence," Keene added, "frankly, we've only excluded one group." (He later told me it was an "overtly-racist group").
"We lost their registration," Keene added.