OXON HILL, Md.— David Silverman was a man without a booth at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Thursday.
His group, the American Atheists, had purchased one and then had it revoked by organizers after he told CNN that “the Christian right should feel threatened by us.”
Silverman, a self-described conservative, holds that the political right would be well served by divorcing itself from Christian values and sticking to limited government and personal freedom as its guideposts — not always the most popular position among some of the activists that travel from across the country to attend the conference.
“CPAC needed to get rid of us,” Silverman said of his ejection.
Booth or none, Silverman showed up on Thursday with a T-shirt reading “Firebrand atheist” and roaming the halls, chatting with — and occasionally debating — anyone who cared to listen to his argument.
“It hurts the movement by throwing away the votes,” he said, noting that he was forced to vote for Democrats until Republican candidates starting espousing more secular values. “I am sick of it. I want to choose.”
During the five minutes Silverman spent talking with Al Jazeera, one man, who said he was an evangelical Christian, approached to say he was glad Silverman could be there. Another woman handed Silverman a Bible verse. After he declined, she walked away saying, “Jesus loves you. I’ll be praying for you.”
“I’ve been getting some of that,” he said cheerfully.
It was a relatively small skirmish but just one of many on display at CPAC among the many different individuals, groups and causes jockeying for a piece of the conservative movement and thereby the modern Republican Party.
Of course, there is a wide spectrum of views in almost every political movement and party, but the rebellions in the GOP have garnered particular attention after the party’s losses in 2012.
In that year’s presidential election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney was clobbered by Barack Obama among key demographic groups, losing women voters 44 to 56 percent and Hispanic voters 71 to 27 percent. Party elders have acknowledged that there is an urgent need to rehabilitate the party’s image and improve those numbers.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., Romney’s running mate, noted the strife during his speech Thursday.
“The way the left tells it, the Republican Party is in a civil war,” he said. “It’s tea party versus establishment, libertarians versus social conservatives. There’s infighting, conflict, backbiting, discord. Look, I’m Irish — that’s my idea of a family reunion.”
Ryan added that he didn’t think all the ideological tussling was necessarily detrimental.
“What I see is a vibrant debate,” he said. “We’re figuring out the best way to apply our principles to the challenges of the day. Sure, we have our disagreements. And yes, they can get a little passionate. I like to think of it as creative tension.”
And creative tension there was at CPAC — a glimpse of a messy makeover in progress, with many prescriptions put forward on how to fix the problems.
Some, like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a favorite of the tea party, said conservatives should hew to their principles at all costs. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie urged a more pragmatic approach.
“We can’t govern if we don’t win,” he said during his speech.
There were plenty of libertarians, many sporting red “Stand with Rand” T-shirts and buttons in support of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, who has shot to fame combining staunch fiscal conservatism with a blistering critique of the federal government’s wide-ranging national security apparatus.
“Libertarians are the key to saving the party,” said Hassan Sheikh, a 26-year-old supporter. “We should always apply the principle of liberty to every issue that we’re looking at.”
Those acolytes were not to be outdone by the social conservatives, who urged their fellow activists not to give up on the fight to battle what they consider cultural ills.
“If this nation forgets our God, then God will have every right to forget us,” said former Gov. Mike Huckabee, a champion of the religious conservatives.
There were those who argued that conservatism should strain to show a softer, more compassionate side. Indeed, at this year’s CPAC there was a panel on criminal justice reform that espoused the need for prison reform. Pat Monks was attending on behalf of a group called Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty and believed there was a legitimate conservative case to be made for banning executions, for both moral and financial reasons.
“The Bible says man cannot kill man,” he said. “It’s a scheme to allow man to end someone else’s life.”
And then there were those who were impatient for the Republican Party to get with the times and modernize.
Howard “Cowboy” Wooldridge wandered the convention center sporting a cowboy hat and a T-shirt reading “Cops say legalize pot” — once heresy among conservative voters but one that is starting to gain more traction.
“Conservatives and libertarian-leaning folks understand that prohibition is a liberal nanny-state policy,” said Wooldridge, a former police detective. “Young kids get it. They believe in personal freedom.”
He added that Republicans were at risk of once again alienating those voters if they were unwilling to at least adopt the stance that the decision should be left up to the states.
“You’re going to annoy 25 million people,” he said. “They’re going to think we’re the same old dinosaurs, the same tired old people who are stuck in the last century.”
Despite the many voices allowed a microphone at CPAC, there were others who felt snubbed. Across the street, at the Westin Hotel, a different group of conservatives was hosting a counterevent, a national security summit organized by the Breitbart News Network in protest of what it said was CPAC’s exclusion of important topics related to international affairs.
It was called Uninvited II.