The GOP’s Big Tent?

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Take a stroll through CPAC’s exhibition hall this year and between the proffered candy, bumper stickers and key rings you can’t help overhearing some heated debates. At the end of the first row of exhibitors, next to the National Rifle Association, is a booth for the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.

“That’s a lot of things to be worried about,” I remarked to the booth attendee.

“Yes,” he said smiling, “we have a lot of fingers in a lot of pies.”

These days, the group is particularly concerned with gays in the military. Beyond opposing the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the organization of lay Catholics would like to see all homosexuals banned from the military, according to a white and green pamphlet they were handing out. The case against gays in the military is laid out in a book, displayed prominently, called An American Knight: The Life of Colonel John W. Ripley, USMC, yours for just $14.95.

While I was flipping through the autobiography, a woman approached the booth. Catherine Sumner, it turned out, was part of GOProud, a group of openly gay Republicans and conservatives that for the first time is taking part in CPAC. “Is this your flyer?” Sumner demanded, waving the white and green pamphlet. Thus launched a debate about gays in the military that pretty much ended when the booth attendee told her that homosexuality is a sin and she’s going to hell.

“It’s insulting,” Sumner, 31, who edits a military magazine, said turning away. “Across the board the reaction to GOProud’s presence here has been positive, but then you have guys like this. Even Dick Cheney came out and says he supports us. Conservatives have to be more inclusive, they have to be.” In fact, just one group, Liberty University, boycotted CPAC over the inclusion of GOProud, though the Catholic crowd weren’t the only ones unnerved by their presence: one booth down from GOProud’s set up in the fourth row, those manning the National Organization for Marriage, which works to ban gay marriage, kept casting nervous – and slightly envious – glances at the somewhat larger crowd surrounding GOProud’s booth.

The tensions didn’t end there. Along the back wall 2004 World Poker Champion Greg Raymer stood waiting for a talk radio interview. “Focus on the Family considers poker immoral,” Raymer said, gesturing towards the Focus on the Family booth down an aisle. “They have no right to tell me what to do.” Raymer is at CPAC representing the Poker Players Alliance, which is lobbying to have a 2005 ban on Internet poker lifted – literally one of the last bills passed by the GOP before they lost control of Congress. “In the privacy of our own homes, consenting adults should be able to do whatever they want,” Raymer said. “Gambling is legal in America. They shouldn’t be mandating how we live. If they consider it a sin, they shouldn’t do it. But don’t tell me I can’t do it.”

CPAC has always been wonderful in its jumble of competing issue groups all jostling for attention. And it certainly has seen similar tensions in years past: this is the second year that the Poker Alliance has set up shop at CPAC. But it was striking to see in speech after speech many of the wedge issues that so preoccupied the most recent GOP  majority – Terry Schiavo, abortion, stem cells, gays, family values, religion in government – sublimated to the GOP’s laser-like focus on the economy and to see the CPAC’s attempts, as with GOProud, to widen their tent.

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