Like at a family reunion, the infighting at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) started long before anybody arrived.
First, the group American Atheists announced that it would be sponsoring a booth at the conference, with the goal of bringing conservative nonbelievers "out of the closet." The religious right was not pleased.
"CPAC's mission is to be an umbrella for conservative organizations that advance liberty, traditional values and our national defense," said the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins. But he made clear that atheists would certainly not fit under his umbrella: "Does the American Conservative Union really think the liberties and values they seek to preserve can be maintained when they partner with individuals and organizations that are undermining the understanding that our liberties come from God?" he asked. Good question.
Then there was the perennial problem of the gays. In 2011, religious right groups including the FRC boycotted CPAC after the ACU allowed the conservative LGBT group GOProud to cosponsor the event. Once again, the establishment sided with the religious right and for the next two years banned GOProud from participating. This year, ACU offered a "compromise" in which GOProud was allowed to attend the event but not to so much as sponsor a booth in the exhibition hall. The "compromise" was so insulting that one of GOProud's founders quit the organization's board in protest.
But what about the people who were too embarrassingly far-right for CPAC? Not to worry, there's no such thing.
Although the atheist and LGBT groups were too far off-message for the ACU, it did allow the anti-immigrant group ProEnglish to sponsor a booth at CPAC. Just a quick Google would have told the conference organizers that ProEnglish is run by a zealous white nationalist, Bob Vandervoort. In fact, CPAC's organizers might have recognized Vandervoort's name from the uproar his inclusion in the event caused in 2012 and 2013.
Now, just because the ACU was ready to welcome anti-immigrant extremists doesn't mean that that was enough for immigrant bashers. A group of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim activists who were worried that CPAC was going too soft on their issues organized an alternative conference across the street. One of their concerns was the perennial conspiracy theory that ACU member Grover Norquist is a secret Muslim Brotherhood agent. Another is that CPAC dared to hold a panel featuring immigration reform proponents.
They shouldn't have worried. Three days of speeches on the CPAC main stage made clear that many prominent conservative activists have no intention of moderating their stance on immigration reform. Donald Trump told the audience that immigrants are "taking your jobs," Rep. Michele Bachmann said she wouldn't even consider immigration reform until they "build the danged fence," and Ann Coulter, never one to disappoint, suggested that if immigration reform passes "we organize the death squads for the people who wrecked America." Then, there was One America News anchor Graham Ledger, who used the CPAC podium to claim that because of immigration, schools no longer teach "the American culture."
To be fair, CPAC did make some efforts at opening the Republican umbrella, hosting a panel on minority outreach off the main stage. But the gesture would have been slightly more meaningful if anybody had bothered to show up.
Any family has its squabbles. But this awkward backyard barbeque has turned into a full-fledged food fight.