Nearly two years ago on the campaign trail, Donald Trump declared himself a conservative — and called it irrelevant. "I'm a conservative," Trump told the audience at the California Republican Party convention in April 2016, "but at this point, who cares? We've got to straighten out the country." Trump went on to shock the world six months later with his presidential win, and ever since, conservatives have been trying to find their footing in a new, populist political order on the right.
This week, at the 46th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held just outside of Washington, D.C., conservatives will meet for the second time in the Trump era. Will this be a debate over the principles of conservative governance, as it has functioned in the past? Or will conservatives rally around the victors of 2016 and demand unity over policy, reflecting an impulse to gather the wagons around the personalities and discourage dissent?
Last year's CPAC mainly focused on the big victory — and rightly so. Both President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence made triumphant appearances to the delight of many conservatives who had worried about another four years of Democratic control over the White House. New administration appointees, including Cabinet members like Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, plus White House brain-trust members such as Kellyanne Conway and Sebastian Gorka, offered sunny predictions for conservative traction in the coming term. The appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court provided even more buoyancy to the celebration.
This year will feature many of the same speakers. Both Trump and Pence will return, as will DeVos and Conway, joined this time by fellow Cabinet members Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Some of the celebration will have cause to continue, as well; Trump has been remarkably stalwart on conservative judicial nominations even after Gorsuch, and the rollback of regulatory growth on a broad scale has to rank among Trump's highest policy achievements for conservatives. The crushing of ISIS in Raqqa and Mosul will cheer national-security conservatives as well.
However, one year into the Trump presidency, it's become clear that conservative policy will not always prevail, or at times have much of an impact. One important promise has rung out from the dais at every CPAC since 2010: the repeal of ObamaCare. The failure to get a repeal passed in 2017 should be — and likely will be — the subject of debate this year. This failure belongs much less to Trump than it does to Republicans in Congress, especially the Senate. After seven years of promises to conservatives of party unity in that effort, activists suddenly discovered that some Republicans turned out to like ObamaCare too much to uproot it.
That won't be the only promise that comes under scrutiny. During their previous time in single-party governance in the George W. Bush years, Republicans supposedly learned a hard lesson about big spending increases and entitlement expansions. After losing control of Congress in the 2006 midterms, the GOP insisted it would impose fiscal discipline on the federal government. After taking control of the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014 midterms, Republicans fought a series of pitched battles to rein in the Obama administration's spending. The two parties finally settled on budget caps, also called "sequesters," a flawed but effective way to rein in spending growth.
With control of the White House, Republicans had the opportunity to finally deliver on decades of promises for fiscal discipline. Instead, Trump backed a deal that blew a $300 billion hole in the caps for the next two years, more than four times the compromise reached in 2013 with Obama as president. The new budget caps do allow for more military spending, which is a conservative priority, but by throwing money at Democrats everywhere else. The deal, combined with the tax reform bill, threatens to bring back trillion-dollar annual deficits, this time fully under the Republican Party label.
The tax reform bill might also be a point of contention. While it represents the biggest tax cut in decades and has already had a salutary effect on Republican prospects in the midterms, many conservatives will have trouble seeing it as a reform, as opposed to merely rate reductions that could get reversed by later Congresses and presidents. For the last several CPACs, the debate over tax reform was aimed at full-blown overhauls of the system. Some conservatives backed a flat tax, in which everyone pays the same rate on all income without any deductions, while other activists backed the "fair tax" — a consumption tax combined with a repeal of the 16th Amendment to eliminate the income tax altogether. The conservative ambition to eliminate the IRS and end rent-seeking behaviors in the tax code has been altogether abandoned.
These debates might complicate any celebratory efforts at CPAC. The speaker list leans significantly more populist than traditional conservatism. Fiscal and tax policies seem to have been downplayed on the agenda in favor of other issues, although one panel on Friday afternoon describes itself as a conservative report card on the Trump administration. Otherwise, it appears that the conversations will be dominated by White House officials and the populists who have succeeded in dominating the conversation on the right.
So, will the conservatives assert themselves at the Conservative Political Action Conference this week? Or will they line up behind the populists and try not to rock the boat? As always, it will be fascinating to watch as the answer becomes clear.