Ah, CPAC. Like Thanksgiving, Fourth of July and Memorial Day all rolled into one, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is a time for the best and rightest of conservative activists and politicians to gather, test out their Republican credentials, and glorify the memory of their patron saint, Ronald Reagan.
Attendees at a conservative conference in town this week
will have the opportunity to whack a pinata of Speaker Nancy Pelosi
(D-Calif.). Conservative Political Action Conference “CPAC”
begins Thursday here in D.C. and will feature a party Friday evening
where guests will have the opportunity to whack a Speaker Nancy Pelosi
Keri Ann Meslar, director of development for the Greater Washington
Sports Alliance and Katherine Kennedy of The Blonde Charity Mafia will
be two of three famous D.C. residents taking a turn at the pinata
during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which
starts on Thursday. Meslar will be the guest “whacker” at a
CPAC-sponsored party in Georgetown.
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Mary Christopher, outreach coordinator for CivicForumPAC, said the
Pelosi piñata will be filled with favorite Pelosi sayings, bills and
candy. The party hopes to invite two other well-known D.C. residents to
smash the piñata first, before others in attendance will be invited to
try to take the Speaker down. “We’re hoping to have the females whack the piñata and males try their hand at a Harry Reid punching bag,” Christopher said.
Certainly, the Republicans would state that it’s not advocating violence against women, if it’s only women who are whacking at the Pelosi stand in. After all, it’s the same argument they use when they have Republican women sponsor anti-choice legislation: "How can it be anti-women if it’s sponsored by a woman?"
Planned Parenthood is certainly the target, but its destruction is not the goal, any more than destroying ACORN was the true goal back in 2008. Destruction would be a happy side effect, but the true goal is to destroy the pathway for women to have access to legal and safe abortions.
See more of our coverage on the misleading Center for Medical Progress videos here.
To understand exactly how the most recent Planned Parenthood attack was planned and coordinated, you must go back to 2013. In July of 2013, Washington, D.C. reporter David Corn revealed the existence of a high-powered group of people who viewed themselves as a conservative army fighting a war on multiple fronts. From the wife of a Supreme Court justice to the chief of staff for Sen. Ted Cruz, members of this group were determined to stop all progress before it could even begin.
They Called Themselves “Groundswell”
Just after Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, disappointed conservative thought leaders came together at the annual CPAC conference in Washington, D.C. to strategize. Demoralized but determined, they formed a plan to fight a “30-front war to fundamentally transform the nation.”
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In early 2013, they formed an email group to begin the process of organizing for action and messaging coordination. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions’ key aide Danielle Cutrona was part of the group, as was Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton, Breitbart News Editor John Nolte, Family Research Council officials Jerry Boykin and Ken Blackwell, Tea Party Patriots Founder Jenny Beth Martin, Washington, D.C. attorney and public relations expert Diana Banister, Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton, former Congressman Allen West, former Secret Service agent Dan Bongino, Frank Gaffney, and Ted Cruz staffer Max Pappas rounded out the top-tier of group participants, according to David Corn’s report.
They met weekly in the offices of Judicial Watch to hone their message and action plans. One meeting was secretly recorded, getting them on the record with regard to their desire to get a select committee to investigate the Benghazi attack, mostly for the purpose of obtaining unlimited subpoena power.
Their goal was not merely to function as a messaging machine, but to “sync messages and develop action from reports and information exchanged,” according to the minutes of their March 27, 2013 meeting. “Going forward there should be an action item accompanying each report,” they concluded.
The purpose of the group was to collaborate and coordinate strategy and action for their multiple “fronts.” Shadow government assignments were made, committees were formed, and strategies were developed. All of this was done with participation and input from key congressional staffers working in the House and the Senate. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), now House Majority Whip, was the head of the conservative Republican Study Committee at the time. His staff routinely dropped in to tip off the group as to upcoming votes on key issues.One of the most active participants on the email list was Danielle Cutrona, who was a key staffer for Sen. Jeff Sessions.
Whenever there was a need for support or for opposition to legislation, or an investigation or opposition to a judicial nominee, these staffers would reach into the group in order to recruit members for messaging or action support.
Immigration reform, religious liberty, and judicial appointments were high on their list of priorities, and they enjoyed some successes. They got their Select Committee on Benghazi, they successfully opposed one of the president’s judicial nominees who was not sufficiently steeped in their idea of Second Amendment interpretation, and they were wildly successful with their attack on the Internal Revenue Service’s procedure for approving nonprofit organizations.
Blueprint for Activism
After David Corn broke the story of this group two years ago and audio of one of their weekly meetings became public, a blueprint for how to track coordination to advance its agenda, via messaging and action with key congressional aides, emerged.
One such example can be found in their effort to push the idea that the president was putting “politics over public safety” with regard to immigration reform.
Frank Gaffney penned a Washington Times op-ed titled “Putting Politics Over Public Safety.” Tom Fitton headlined a Judicial Watch weekly update “Politics over Public Safety: More Illegal Alien Criminals Released by Obama Administration.” Peter List, editor of LaborUnionReport.com, authored a RedState.com post called “Obama’s Machiavellian Sequestration Pain Game: Putting Politics Over Public Safety.” Matthew Boyle used the phrase in an immigration-related article for Breitbart. And Dan Bongino promoted Boyle’s story on Twitter by tweeting, “Politics over public safety?” In a message to Groundswellers, Ginni Thomas awarded “brownie points” to Fitton, Gaffney, and other members for promoting the “politics over public safety” riff.
All Eyes on Planned Parenthood
Groundswell is now two years old, having cut its teeth on the fight against Common Core and the 2014 elections. Its members are just now hitting their stride and the evidence can be seen in the latest series of Planned Parenthood videos, which were carefully timed and coordinated for maximum political gain.
Here’s a look at the timeline and principal players. To determine the rollout, I used archived pages from the aggregation site Memeorandum and checked hourly snapshots to see how the story spread.
On July 14, Lila Rose’s Live Action News posted the press release and video from the so-called Center for Medical Progress. One of the first to pick up the story in less than an hour from its release was Austin Ruse, for Breitbart News. Ruse is a member of Groundswell, as is Breitbart’s managing editor, Stephen Bannon.
The Daily Caller was next, where Ginni Thomas serves as a contributor. Thomas was one of the key drivers of messaging and issues inside the Groundswell group, assigning key phrases and terms to group members to use for action and articles.
The Washington Free Beacon, a new but well-funded online news site, was next up shortly thereafter with facts and figures about federal funding for Planned Parenthood, suggesting that it was time to withdraw that funding, based upon the not-yet debunked report from the CMP.
The Federalist, the Heritage Foundation’s “news site” posted a story about Hillary Clinton’s vocal support for Margaret Sanger, using the long-debunked claim that Sanger supported the extermination of the Black race because of her allyship with the eugenics movement. (The Heritage Foundation was being considered for membership in the group in March 2013, but was not present at the May Groundswell meeting.)
The story was spreading, but slowly. This was partly due to reports of David Daleiden’s ties to the now-disgraced and unreliable sting artist James O’Keefe, as well as his ties to racist and also-disgraced blogger Chuck Johnson.
When the story didn’t catch fire quickly enough, the Daily Caller reporter who had first reported the story came back around for a second shot, observing that Democratic candidates were largely silent on the issue of “alleged Planned Parenthood felonies.”
July 14 also happened to be the day many left-side activists and writers were en route to Phoenix, Arizona, for Netroots Nation, which is the largest gathering of political activists, operatives, and writers for the left. The release date meant that the story would have the benefit of several hours before any level of significant skepticism would register from Planned Parenthood or allies online.
Also on July 14: Anti-abortion extremists convened in Alabama, home state to Sen. Jeff Sessions. Some groups represented in Alabama are connected to David Daleiden and his front group used for the Planned Parenthood attack.
By the close of business on July 14, the story had been picked up by all of the conservative news outlets online, and it was beginning to spread throughout social media. The key phrase for this onslaught was “Planned Parenthood sells baby parts.” Each and every article uses that language to describe the CMP video.
On July 15, House Speaker John Boehner announced an investigation into the allegations on the video, which had already been shown to be false. Leading the charge on that front in the Senate: Ted Cruz.
On July 16, representatives admitted they had seen the video weeks before its release.
On July 17, Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Rep. Tim Murphy sent a letter to Planned Parenthood requesting specific information about the fetal tissue program.
Family Research Council’s Jerry Boykin was not shy about reaching out to Congress for specific action. In the recording of Groundswell’s May 8, 2013 meeting, he outlined the contacts he had made—including a late-night hallway meeting with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA)—to facilitate a select committee on Benghazi. Similarly, here we have a story based on edited video intended to attack Planned Parenthood with inflammatory rhetoric and repugnant images crafted to spark congressional action. That action came one day later, when John Boehner announced a congressional investigation into Planned Parenthood’s fetal tissue donation program. The investigation and ensuing releases of more edited video are intended to keep the extreme conservative base engaged and angry while inflicting deep harm on Planned Parenthood. Just as the Benghazi hearings were intended to harm Hillary Clinton’s credibility, so too are the Planned Parenthood attacks and congressional inquiries intended to keep the anti-abortion extremists engaged in the electoral process underway. Planned Parenthood is certainly the target, but its destruction is not the goal, any more than destroying ACORN was the true goal back in 2008. Destruction would be a happy side effect, but the true goal is to destroy the pathway for women to have access to legal and safe abortions. As this cabal of conservatives has demonstrated, their goal is to spur Congress to further ban abortions while also promoting Republican extreme conservatives in the 2016 field as the True Heroes for primary voters.
It should bother us all that the spouse of a sitting Supreme Court justice is involved in this level of coordination with everyone from media outlets to congressional staffers. It should bother us more that they are successful in their attempts to derail serious debate about serious issues by creating and promoting a video that does not prove what they claim to prove, in a calculating and manipulative way for the sole purpose of gaining an electoral advantage.
One university student CPAC attendee said that there is definitely “a culture of a bunch of creepy guys” at the conference—young guys, he clarified. “Everybody knows that guy who swings by and puts his arm around the girl who wants nothing to do with him.”
The young woman casually mentions “sleeping with someone.” Guy recoils, “I don’t like physical contact early in a relationship.”
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) March 6, 2014
The mind-boggling combination of prudery, frustrated sexual entitlement, and slut-shaming got me thinking: Does this kind of thing happen to a lot of young women at CPAC? What’s the sexual culture like at this heady three-day event, where busloads of college students enjoy subsidized registration prices, the company of gaggles of like-minded peers, and a constant tension between socially conservative and libertarian values?
When I asked University of Virginia students Amy McMahon and Abigail Welborn whether they’d been hit on at CPAC, the first response was giggles of recognition; of course they had been.
“At night, going out, there’s a lot of characters,” Welborn said.
“Our party has more men than women, by far, so the ratio’s kind of skewed a little bit,” McMahon said.
Welborn recalled a conversation with a “random guy” who wasn’t hitting on her, but who said, “’Oh yeah, I’m gonna hook up with five women.’ And I was like, whoa. That’s not what I thought of when I came to CPAC. I thought, politics, opportunity!”
A group of young women from Westchester, Pennsylvania, who asked to remain anonymous said that the guys in their group had been “talking about girls non-stop,” as one put it. “They’ll be like, ‘did you see that one there?’ and point one out.” Another young woman in that group said she had gotten a lot of creepy comments from older men about her curly, bright red hair.
Patrick Moran of the University of Albany said that there is definitely “a culture of a bunch of creepy guys” at CPAC—young guys, he clarified. “Everybody knows that guy who swings by and puts his arm around the girl who wants nothing to do with him.”
“I’ve seen guys open up with their credentials as though it’s a job interview,” Moran said. “Hi, how you doing, I’m president of this club and that club, and I’m at Yale!”
Some said that the flirting or hook-up scenes weren’t that much different from back home—except that connections were almost guaranteed to be short-term (“you either get their number or you don’t,” Moran said), and you meet more like-minded people in one place than you’re used to.
“Coming from a liberal state like New York, there’s not a lot of conservative women,” Moran said. “And when you come here and see a bunch of well-dressed people who believe what you believe and look very good—I mean, you get excited!”
Is waiting to have sex until marriage still an ideal among young conservatives?
“It’s definitely kind of an ideal, but I think we’re realistic enough to see that it doesn’t always happen, and there’s nothing really wrong with that,” McMahon said.
Is there hypocrisy along those lines? “I’ve seen a lot more not really practicing what they preach,” said University of Albany student Robert Warshauer. “I feel like religion plays a big part of it.”
Most young people I spoke to hedged with an “everybody has their own view” kind of answer when asked whether they, personally, wanted to wait until marriage. Not so, however, with two young women from Virginia who didn’t want to give their names or the name of their school. One wore an engagement ring and said she’s waiting until her wedding day, and the other said she also believes in waiting until marriage and doesn’t agree with the “casual” attitude toward sex that pervades events like these.
Some didn’t identify with the hook-up scene for other reasons. “I already feel really old here,” said Heather Linville, from Minnesota. “I had to check the 26-40 box today. It’s just been a very rough morning,” she said, laughing, referring to the demographic information in the CPAC straw poll. “I’ve heard stories, you know it’s going on, I’ve just never been a part of it.”
Linville, who wore a “Stand with Rand” button, was still concerned about the tension between social conservatives and libertarians. “Sometimes when I’m around libertarians I feel more Republican, and when I’m around Republicans I feel more libertarian,” she said. “We have to figure out a way to get over ourselves and start being an inclusive party again. We’re just going to start driving people away.” She cited the exclusion of the gay Republican group GOProud as an example.
The right-wing Catholic group Tradition, Family, and Property, which passed out leaflets painting GOProud as “beavers” chomping away at the social conservative “leg” of conservative politics, presumably has strong opinions of its own about the morality of CPAC hook-ups.
I experienced a few CPAC come-ons myself while reporting this piece at a Friday happy hour. One guy looked at my badge to see where I worked and asked what “RH” stood for. I told him it was “reproductive health.”
“What’s that code for?” he asked.
Another said, as an opening salvo: “You look like you need saving.” He probably meant “from boredom,” though, not sin.
Correction: A version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote said by Abigail Welborn to Amy McMahon, and vice versa. We regret the error.