What Does a Smart Person Do at CPAC?
Follow Derek Khanna, the GOP wunderkind that the House Republicans were too stupid to keep around.
“You’re too young to have been fighting this fight in the mid-1980s,” says Uhler, reminding Khanna of how an old campaign failed. “This was down and dirty.”
“With all due respect,” says Khanna, “if there was enough support in the 1980s to get it to 33 states, when the debt was at $2.5 trillion, I believe we can get it to 34 states today.”
That’s the end of his official duties. Khanna meets up with friends, en route to lunch. While he waits, college Republicans zero in on the well-spoken young guy who just got his face on C-Span.
I’m the assistant vice chair of the Catholic University CRs …
Any time you can come to Grand Rapids, we’d love to have you …
Khanna shakes hands with a kid wearing a three-piece suit, Constitution in the vest pocket, and joins the crew as they trek to the convention village’s restaurants. The “truth truck,” a vehicle bedecked in horrific pictures of abortions, is parked in front of the piano bar.
“That’s disgusting!” says one of the young Republicans.
“Ugh! I thought it was a food truck,” admits another.
The crew settles on Nando’s, a chicken place renowned for its spicy sauces. Everybody orders sauce-less chicken wraps; Khanna talks about the need to kill Sen. Patrick Leahy’s version of cellphone unlocking rules. The rest, students and recent grads, get caught up on the controversy of the conference, the way that the gay Republican group GOProud was barred from opening a booth. They ended up scoring a sneaky invitation from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a panel about gay rights in a too-small room, at an undesirable time. “I’ve been telling everyone to go,” says Khanna.
Then it’s back to the main conference rooms, with plenty of time to catch a panel ostensibly about whether Republicans need to “shoot all the consultants.” On the way, Khanna is stopped again, by a PR consultant who saw CNN reporters in need of interviews. “You’d be perfect,” she says. “Under 30, smart, handsome, and”—she whispers—“not white.”
Khanna laughs politely, because she’s not wrong. His family emigrated from India decades ago. Half of the official chatter at this conference is about how the party has alienated voters who aren’t white and straight and male. When I ask about the need for that GOProud panel, he says “I’ll give you a quote,” and composes himself to give an answer that could survive vetting by a focus group.
“My family, they came to the United States in the ’60s,” he says. “I worry about other immigrants, in similar positions, when they see a party that excludes a group like GOProud. The perceived lack of inclusion of gay people might become a perceived lack of inclusion of Hispanics, of Asians.”
Khanna finds the panel, entering just as Pat Caddell—who’s only referred to as a Democrat when he’s pitching columns—finishes a rant about how the conservative base was scammed. “Mitch McConnell is the Admiral Burnside of politics!” he says. “The grassroots needs to hold them accountable, and you didn’t!”
Jeff Roe, a Missouri strategist, rises to give a modest defense of consultants. Hating the consultant for the failure of the candidate is like hating your wife because you’re too lazy to diet. Conservative voters don’t go online. Liberals live online. “They date online.”
“That was before RedStateDate,” whispers Khanna.
When the consultant panel ends, a busier panel about the youth vote takes its place. Khanna deals with it the same way: Polite listening, frequent use of his smartphone, sarcasm when it’s called for. The umpteenth youth representative insists that the GOP merely needs a new “narrative”—then the Obama kids will come running. “How about better tech policies?” whispers Khanna.
That’s almost enough sitting and listening for a day. Khanna hits the GOProud panel, packed far beyond fire department standards, and sticks around to catch up with the panelists. They all know him. The guy whose wonkery outsmarted the House GOP is a good ally, now or when, as GOProud’s Jimmy LaSalvia says, “he takes over.”
I stay out of Khanna’s way for a few hours, as he and a new crew of Republicans venture back into the restaurant quarter. Shortly after 10 p.m. I find him again, at the “Millennial Party” that’s taken over a bar called the Public House. It’s one of those crowds that proves the laziness of Stephen Glass—why did he have to fabricate a group of young Republicans in Sunday clothes, downing shots and pumping fists? The last time I see Khanna, he’s singing along to “Pour Some Sugar on Me” as a man staggers past him, drinking beer out of a glass large enough to host a Bonsai tree.
The next morning, Khanna emails me about a panel titled “Internet freedom vs. Intellectual Property: What is the conservative view?” A friend had told him it would “highlight the myths you raised in your RSC paper.”
“I'm stopping by this,” he says. “I don’t know if it would be of interest.”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.