The response to Ron Paul's CPAC straw poll win ranged somewhere between dismay and outright panic. Let me offer a contrarian take.
I have written in recent years about CPAC being an insular affair -- a trade show for Beltway conservative groups, but little more. The vibe I picked up at this year's CPAC was a little different -- more students, more grassroots, more friends from outside the Beltway making the trip. Matt Lewis has an astute take on this shift:
CPAC director Lisa De Pasquale told me: "Our pre-registration numbers were 20 percent above last year's. We're expecting over 10,000 attendees and more than half of them are college students. I think it really speaks to the excitement and energy in the conservative movement right now."
One seasoned CPAC veteran, who asked not be named, bluntly told me, "I've been coming to these for years. This used to be a convention of blue hairs; now it has youthful energy." If you're a conservative -- as I am -- it was nice to see fresh young faces, who attend at a greatly reduced price. "Blue dog" Democrats are one thing, blue-haired Republicans are quite another.
It shouldn't be too surprising then, that a group outside the normal circles of conservative influence was able to out-hustle and out-organize, and win the straw poll on dramatically increased turnout. Across the board, lots of new people are getting involved in the movement (see: tea parties), creating fertile ground for a seismic shift in the results.
While I won't necessarily be rooting for a Paul 2012 candidacy, I *like* the fact that CPAC was shaken up, for two big reasons.
First, it shows that Ron Paul and the Campaign for Liberty are engaging constructively in the conservative movement. In 2007, the Paulites were an oppositional force trying to submarine the GOP's commitment to the war on terror, thus threatening traditional conservatives. Today, libertarians and conservatives have come together against Obama's endless expansion of the State, with Ron Paul supporters supplying creative organizing tactics and boots on the ground.
This leads into my second reason: in terms of grassroots organization, Paul supporters are some of the best -- if not the best -- that we have. The iconography of the tea party movement is heavily libertarian (think the Gadsden Flag) and that's no coincidence. If you broke down the organizers and even those in attendance, you'd find more than your fair share of Ron Paul supporters.
This is a categorical shift that's happened in the last year. Remember when the image of conservatives in the political arena was that of dutiful salaried workers with families and limited time to engage in the kind of direct political protest perfected by ACORN and MoveOn.org? That image has been turned on its head by the tea parties and 9/12 protests. And I think that's due in no small measure to the influence of libertarians, who've been more willing to employ bold tactics conventionally thought of as leftist (but effective).
In terms of organizing, conservatives can learn a lot from libertarians. Online, the moneybomb concept originally pioneered during the Ron Paul campaign has started to work for more conventional Republicans like Scott Brown.
The 2008 Ron Paul campaign can be compared to the 1988 Pat Robertson campaign in helping a movement find its way into the Republican Party and thus establishing itself as a permanent fixture in the party. Like Robertson, Paul did not come anywhere near capturing the nomination, but the influence of Christian conservatives -- and now libertarians -- endures.