CPAC Lineup: Trump Will Speak; Breitbart Editor Won't

CPAC Lineup: Trump Will Speak; Breitbart Editor Won't
Jeremy Papasso/Daily Camera via AP, File
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For the first time in nearly a decade, a U.S. president will keynote the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. Donald Trump's address later this week gives CPAC activists cause to celebrate, even if his ascendency raises questions about the future of their movement.

But it’s the invitation of another speaker -- an invitation that ultimately was rescinded Monday -- that threatens to cast a shadow over a conference that aimed to bask in GOP victories.

Milo Yiannopoulos, an editor at the conservative website Breitbart News, had been given a prime speaking slot at the conference. But a newly surfaced video, in which he appears to excuse pedophilia, caused an outcry.

American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp said Yiannopoulos was originally invited to address a popular topic in conservative circles -- political correctness run amok on college campuses.

“Between when we invited him and announced him, video surfaced online that seemed to normalize pedophilia, and we were offended by this,” Schlapp told RCP on Monday. 

Yet some conservatives were wondering why Yiannopoulos was given the platform in the first place. "Even before the new video came to light, there was already a strong case to be made that a Milo CPAC keynote would be tantamount to mainstreaming the bigotry-tinged politics of the alt-right, and was therefore deeply unwise," argued Guy Benson, editor of the conservative outlet TownHall. 

Yiannopoulos espouses alt-right and racist views and has been on record deriding women and using anti-Semitic slurs. Protesters have blocked his appearances on college campuses, including the University of California-Berkeley, which some conservatives have held up as an example of the left’s hypocrisy. Indeed, the day before Schlapp disinvited Yiannopoulos from CPAC, he defended him: “Conservatives should fight back,” he wrote on Twitter in response to a critique. “As radioactive as [M]ilo is, he is fighting back.”

But others describe him as a provocateur who doesn’t represent or identify as a conservative, as he himself indicated in a recent interview with HBO’s Bill Maher.

Now, CPAC organizers find themselves in a bind. “Had they permitted him to speak, it would have been considered a tacit endorsement of his opinions,” wrote the editors of the conservative National Review in an op-ed. “Now, having rescinded his invitation, CPAC will be portrayed by Yiannopoulos’s many fans as one more organ of leftist-style speech-policing. Whatever happens later this week, CPAC has diminished true conservatism’s appeal.”

President Trump has not weighed in on the latest Yiannopoulos controversy, but did criticize UC-Berkeley earlier this month after violent protests prompted the school to cancel the writer’s appearance on campus. 

Former Breitbart executive Steve Bannon, now President Trump’s chief strategist, will also speak at CPAC as part of an on-stage conversation with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Vice President Mike Pence will give an address, and adviser Kellyanne Conway will be interviewed. 

Schlapp said the Yiannopoulos saga won’t cloud CPAC’s agenda, and pointed to the fact that Trump would be the first GOP president to address the conference during his first year in office since Ronald Reagan in 1981.

“We've never won so much and had so much political power,” Schlapp said in an interview with RCP. “It’s not a position conservatives are used to being in.”

While Trump has been a featured speaker at CPAC and has donated to the ACU over the years, conservative activists vigorously fought his nomination. Trump dropped out of CPAC last year amid backlash -- a decision, the group said at the time, that “sends a clear message to conservatives.” But while CPAC serves as a hub for conservative activism and a platform for potential candidates, it is hardly a predictor of the party mood. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won the straw poll for president last year, for example.

For the past eight years under a Democratic president, CPAC has served to rally the GOP base. Speakers invariably railed against President Obama, Democrats in Congress, and liberal policies they vehemently disagreed with. While the confab has featured prominent governors and lawmakers, including Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker, some of the biggest ovations have gone to speakers such as Sarah Palin and “Duck Dynasty” stars. 

This year, the conference could take on a slightly different tone with a Republican in the White House and the party in control of both chambers of Congress. But questions about what the conservative movement looks like under a Trump presidency will likely be front and center. 

“Trump may either accomplish more than Republican presidents did in terms of a conservative agenda, despite all the chaos and drama ... or he will redefine conservatism, which will have different values,” said GOP strategist Rick Tyler, a former spokesman for Cruz’s presidential campaign. “The movement is at a crossroads, and it remains a known unknown where it's going.”

Some of the sessions will explore that unknown. Topics include “Conservatism: Where We Come From, Where We Are, and Where We're Going,” and “The Alt Right Ain't Right at All,” suggesting pushback to some of the ideas promoted by Breitbart News.

Despite his differences with ideological conservatives, Trump will return to CPAC Friday with new currency that could endear him to the crowd.

“He will always and forever be the guy who beat Hillary Clinton,” Tyler said.

Trump’s willingness to take on his own party could also gain favor with conservative activists at CPAC. In his 2015 address, Trump implored the party to “toughen up” on immigration, repeal Obamacare, and investigate the Benghazi attacks. “Politicians are all talk, not action,” he said, to cheers.

The speech served as something of a preview of the campaign he would officially launch a few months later.

“When was the last time you heard something good about our country?” Trump asked. “We are in a position where we just never win.” 

Then, he added: “You need somebody that perhaps wrote 'The Art of the Deal.’”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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