Walking into the exhibit hall at the Gaylord National Resort in Maryland this week, one would be forgiven for an inability to immediately tell the difference between any typical trade show that utilizes the space, and the Conservative Political Action Conference that is holding court here until Saturday. Pens and water bottles abound, along with bags to hold conventioneers' booty, all lined up in booths marked off with blue and white bunting.
But look a little closer at what's printed on the swag, as it's widely known in the trade show business, and one can't miss either the message or some of the more painful unaware metaphors. The Family Research Council, for instance, is handing out small blue balls emblazoned with an anti-same sex marriage symbol. The Susan B. Anthony List, a non-profit that declares itself dedicated to electing pro-life women but endorsed and financially supported many a male candidate in 2012, is handing out dark sunglasses. Accuracy in Media, which exists to "promote accuracy, fairness and balance in news reporting," is selling (but not giving away) a variety of conservative swag, including bumper stickers, mousepads and T-shirts that one could easily find for sale in any tourist trap in Washington, D.C.. And the Charles Koch Institute -- named after billionaire Charles Koch whose estranged brother Bill once bought four bottles of wine supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson but sued once their authenticity was strongly questioned -- is handing out beer koozies.
Much has been made of the the contradictions inherent in this year's CPAC, as the perennial divide between social conservatives and fiscal conservatives remains on display in the aftermath of what most observers consider a poor showing in the 2012 elections. But even as younger conservative leaders bemoan the Republican leadership's inability to connect with young voters and their tone-deafness on social issues, it's clear at CPAC that there remains a not-inconsiderable amount of self-awareness at how they are perceived both in and outside of their own movement.
The swag most in demand, and most delicately guarded, by CPAC attendees young and old are signs and T-shirts which say "Stand With Rand," a reference to Sen. Rand Paul's (R-KY) ultimately unsuccessful filibuster of President Obama's CIA director nominee over drone policy. Paul spoke to the conference on Thursday where he called the GOP "stale" and called for the decriminalization of marijuana use -- and inspired many of the young attendees to stand during he speech in apparent solidarity for his filibuster. He remains the man to beat in the conference's straw poll -- which his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) won in 2010 and 2011. Both Pauls, like a growing number of CPAC's young attendees, identify both with the conservative and the libertarian movement -- the latter of which is often rejected by more establishment conservatives. Like former Sen. Rick Santorum's (R-PA) in-demand sweater vests in 2012, it's hard to miss the visual reminders of the things the conservative establishment thinks is important in 2013, and those that attendees want to get their hands on.