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Pot was in and social conservatism was out. That is the best single sentence summary I can give after three exhausting and sometimes mind-numbing days at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

The gathering is a media favorite partly for its colorful characters. One tall attendee—wearing Wrangler jeans, a cowboy hat, and a shirt boldly emblazoned with “Ask Me Why Cops Say Legalize Pot”—was known as the Lone Reefer, but he was hardly alone. The CPAC straw poll inquired about marijuana attitudes, and 41 percent of the 2,459 participants favored its legalization for recreational use, with another 21 percent for medicinal purposes. In the poll’s main event, a question not on pot but on the next POTUS, the libertarian leaning Kentucky Senator Rand Paul dominated with 31 percent of the vote (Ted Cruz was a distant second at 11 percent).

There would be no panels devoted specifically to abortion, and despite the conference’s emphasis on women and the next generation of leaders (included a “10 under 40” program for the main stage) the young, energetic and articulate pro-life voice of Live Action President Lila Rose did not make the cut. CPAC chose instead to place its spotlight on a number of doubtlessly personally decent but unpolished speakers, state senators and the like, who offered speeches such as “Indiana is Leading the Way.”

Neither did the marriage debate have a panel of its own, but it was central to a discussion entitled, “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Ever Get Along?” Panelist Matt Welch, editor of the libertarian Reason magazine, later wrote he was generally heartened by the response of the crowd.

Welch was referring to his panel, but he just as well could have been noting the almost empty room that earlier in the day had heard Ralph Reed dust off his old religious right routine from the 1990s, updated to call for the impeachment of Attorney General Eric Holder. Between glances at their smartphones, some bored college kids near me making lunch plans were asking, “Who is this guy?”

The biggest stars of the CPAC show, however, are not the pontificating think tankers or magazine editors, but the politicians who come to toss slabs of political red meat to the activist masses. There was lots of talk of Obamacare and Benghazi and personal freedom, but the references to social issues were often short and fleeting, if they occurred at all.

Ben Carson was the only potential presidential candidate to clearly affirm his support for a traditional marriage definition. Paul Ryan and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal tried to check the social box by noting issues of religious liberty. Mike Huckabee channeled his old preacher skills to warn of “fiery judgment” should we forget God. Political entertainer Sarah Palin closed out CPAC with some modified Dr. Seuss and a rousing blizzard of one-liners including a shout out for “our littlest sisters in the womb,” a quip that brought about a third of the packed house to its feet. Rick Perry and Florida Senator Marco Rubio made no mention of social issues at all, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was content to self-identify as pro-life while highlighting GOP tolerance for pro-choice speakers at its conventions. Rand Paul had a lot to say about NSA spying but was silent on life and marriage.

In the exhibit hall, an earnest looking and red-sash wearing defender of Tradition, Family, and Property handed me a pamphlet featuring a rainbow colored beaver gnawing away at the social leg of the conservatism’s three-legged stool of fiscal policy, national defense, and social values. The danger to social conservatism, however, is not so much barbarian beavers at the gate, but internal dry rot.

Social conservatism can be debated, but economic conservatism must be celebrated—often in quasi-religious terms. “And Entrepreneurship Shall Set You Free: How to Celebrate Free Market Capitalism in the Popular Culture” proclaimed the title for one main stage offering, and bright faced college students (46 percent of the attendees were under age twenty-five) could be seen handing out “I Love Capitalism” posters.

Chris Plante of the National Organization for Marriage said the “short shrift” given social issues at CPAC was a disappointing “political mistake.” Maggen Stone of Live Action noted a number of visitors were pleasantly surprised to see their booth but were upset at the lack of pro-life programming. The shift towards libertarianism at CPAC has been evident for a number of years, and has likely helped fuel the rise of alternative venues such as the Values Voters Summit, begun in 2006.

Both in what was said and what wasn’t, there was often more evidence of friction than fusionism. This gathering shows no signs of going away, but, in the long run, whether social conservatives will be content with just a seat at the CPAC kid’s table remains to be seen. 

John Murdock works as a natural resources attorney in Washington, D.C., and is a member of The Falls Church Anglican in northern Virginia. He has written on environmental matters for numerous outlets including The New Atlantis. 

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More on: Public Life, CPAC

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