The more things change, the more they stay the same … as last year.  Once again, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) has invited a group of gay conservative activists to participate in the most prominent forum for conservative activism of the year.  And once again, at least a few significant conservative organizations will refuse to participate as a result (via Doug Mataconis at OTB):

Two of the nation’s premier moral issues organizations, the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America, are refusing to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference in February because a homosexual activist group, GOProud, has been invited.

“We’ve been very involved in CPAC for over a decade and have managed a couple of popular sessions. However, we will no longer be involved with CPAC because of the organization’s financial mismanagement and movement away from conservative principles,” said Tom McClusky, senior vice president for FRC Action.

“CWA has decided not to participate in part because of GOProud,” CWA President Penny Nance told WND.

FRC and CWA join the American Principles Project, American Values, Capital Research Center, the Center for Military Readiness, Liberty Counsel, and the National Organization for Marriage in withdrawing from CPAC. In November, APP organized a boycott of CPAC over the participation of GOProud.

WND also mentions an embezzlement “scandal” at the American Conservative Union which reportedly involved the ex-wife of ACU chair David Keene as a contributing factor in the decision by these groups to boycott CPAC. However, in the comments published by WND from the groups in reaction to GOProud’s inclusion (with the exception above from FRC), nothing is mentioned about the missing money, nor did any of these organizations announce their decision to boycott when WND first reported the bookkeeping irregularities two weeks ago. The only issue creating the boycott appears to be the inclusion of gay conservatives by CPAC.

As much as the media like to paint the conservative movement as a monolithic, lock-step aggregation, CPAC itself annually demonstrates the variety and tension between various interests on the Right.  The conference includes social conservatives, Ron Paul groupies, isolationists, interventionists (the dreaded neo-cons), libertarians, religious organizations (including Muslims), atheists, several flavors of fiscal conservatism, and even the John Birch Society.  The point of CPAC isn’t to all come together to agree as much as it is for these organizations to make their pitch to the thousands of activists who attend the conference — in other words, to engage, debate, and either convince or fail to do so.  Half the groups at CPAC probably wouldn’t endorse the other half, with or without GOProud.

It’s also important to note that GOProud isn’t a sponsor for CPAC 2011; they are a participating organization, one of over 70 attending the conference.  Lisa De Pasquale, director of CPAC, pointed out the difference in responding to my request for comment this morning:

GOProud is a participating organization. As of today, we have over 70 participating organizations, 20+ vendors and 8 sponsors. Sponsors come on board on an invite-only basis. List of groups in various levels can be found at www.cpac.org.

We respect that each group will have to weigh the cost benefits of attending CPAC and hope those that can not be there in 2011 will be there at future CPACs.

Other groups participating at the conference therefore don’t have to worry about endorsing a sponsorship of the event by GOProud in attending.  In terms of their stated legislative goals, though, GOProud would have to be considered a fairly mainstream participating group at CPAC.  It’s pretty much the same as last year’s stated priorities, and the most controversial among them has become moot anyway:

1 – TAX REFORM – Death tax repeal; domestic partner tax equity, and other changes to the tax code that will provide equity for gays and lesbians; cut in the capital gains and corporate tax rates to jump start our economy and create jobs; a fairer, flatter and substantially simpler tax code.

2 – HEALTHCARE REFORM – Free market healthcare reform. Legislation that will allow for the purchase of insurance across state lines – expanding access to domestic partner benefits; emphasizing individual ownership of healthcare insurance – such a shift would prevent discriminatory practices by an employer or the government.

3 – SOCIAL SECURITY REFORM – Bringing basic fairness to the Social Security system through the creation of inheritable personal savings accounts.

4 – DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL REPEAL – Repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

5 – HOLDING THE LINE ON SPENDING – Standing up for all tax payers against wasteful and unneccessary spending to protect future generations from the mounting federal debt.

6 – FIGHTING GLOBAL EXTREMISTS – Standing strong against radical regimes who seek to criminalize gays and lesbians.

7 – DEFENDING OUR CONSTITUTION – Opposing any anti-gay federal marriage amendment.

8 – ENCOURAGING COMMUNITY ENTREPRENEURSHIP – Package of free market reforms to encourage and support small businesses and entrepreneurship in the gay community.

9 – REVITALIZING OUR COMMUNITIES – A package of urban related reforms; expanding historic tax preservation credits; support for school choice.

10 – DEFENDING OUR COMMUNITY – Protecting 2nd amendment rights.

As was the case last year, 80% of this agenda would get roaring approval from most groups at CPAC, although the isolationists and Ron Paul clique would argue about #6, and some of the religious/family values groups would reject #7.  And that’s fine.  In fact, that’s why CPAC exists, at least in part — to have these debates in an open forum with conservatives of differing viewpoints and values. CPAC has never demanded that all attendees adopt the agendas of all other attendees, which would be impossible in any circumstance, or even require that they listen to any particular group’s argument.  It has just made those arguments easily accessible and given the best possible forum for engagement and debate of the competing agendas of these groups.

Until recently, everyone seemed to understand that, and to understand that the key to making conservatism succeed was to convince others of its efficacy, liberty, and diversity.  Instead, the groups that have decided to boycott CPAC this year over the inclusion of a group of gay conservatives give the impression that they don’t even want to debate their position on homosexuality and policy, but instead demand that everyone else adopt it as a prerequisite for entry to the conference.  That runs against the very nature of CPAC, and carries more than a hint of arrogance.  This is a mistake, and one these groups will regret in the future.

I will be at CPAC this year, reporting from Bloggers Row and doing my daily show from XPAC with Kevin McCullough.

Update (AP): Gabe Malor counters that this is a rational, if cynical, move for socially conservative groups looking to attract new members:

Stacy McCain doesn’t understand the “auto-marginalization” of these groups, given the unparalleled opportunity at CPAC to reach out to other conservatives. But I suspect that they don’t believe they are marginalizing themselves. Many conservative identity groups, particularly the … Christian-themed special-interest groups* making the ruckus here– FRC, Liberty Counsel, NOM — already feel isolated in an immoral world. It’s an easy calculation: will they get more by reaching out to other (immoral) conservatives at CPAC or by making a flashy stand in WND and then hold their own Christian conference?

The target constituency for these groups isn’t conservatism as a whole, but a rather more limited group. I think they were genuinely surprised by the general lack of reception to their vocal GOProud opposition last year (remember the Sorba incident?) and this is the response. If they can’t convince conservatives of the evils of GOProud inclusion (we’re not even talking about the “evils” of gays here, we’re talking about merely standing in the same room with them), well, they’re going to take their ball and go home.

Update II: Peter Wehner has more thoughts.