Western Conservative Summit Post Mortem

This weekend marked the inaugural Western Conservative Summit. Given the lineup, it would have been a major event under any circumstances. It also marked the successful public branding of John Andrews’s second Colorado think tank, the Centennial Institute. Andrews, of course, was one of the founders of the Independence Institute way back when. That group has tended towards small-l libertarianism over the years, and while there’s probably little there that actually conflicts with most conservatives, II focuses on economic, budgetary, and regulatory issues, largely to the exclusion of social and foreign policy discussion.

The Centennial Institute is clearly intended to be something a little different, perhaps the seeds of a Rocky Mountain Claremont Institute, with which Andrews was associated with some years back.  Rather than seeing the Founding as a great Libertarian (large-L) experiment, the Centennial Institute will attempt to promote the growing assertion of individual liberty as a logical destination of, rather than a deviation from, the country’s religious beginnings.  It will also not contain itself to state or economic issues, but will take on the war on Islamism, immigration, and, one assumes eventually, social issues.

If so, this weekend’s summit set the tone.  The highlights of the weekend for me were Rep. Michelle Bachman, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, Dennis Prager, and Dick Morris.

Rep. Bachman spoke of specific programs she wants to roll back or reform, and of the need to insist that new Congressional Republican leadership actually be what they’re all talking about being – committed to free-market ideas that work, and to rolling back so-called “progressive” legislation, followed by a detailed description of what such an agenda would look like.  Her re-telling of the story of the Four Chaplains left me fighting back tears (Tom Tancredo later told me, “I don’t even try to fight them back.”)  She’s a remarkably confident and engaging speaker, and to see her live is to see what all the fuss is about.

Arthur Brooks‘s talk was almost certainly the most content-laden, discussing how the debate over free enterprise vs. statism isn’t really an economic debate, but a cultural one.  As long as we’re talking about the money, we lose.  Free enterprise is a maintream value, one that maximizes not only wealth but also happiness, and the system that is, ultimately, the fairest.  Conservatives need to make the moral case, not merely the economic case, for free markets.  He backed that up with data, most of which I remember even without taking notes and without the benefit of power points.  Brooks makes wonkishness accessible, and AEI is in for a long run of intellectual success under his leadership.

Prager’s talk was also somewhat unfocused and a bit more rambling than his usual fare.  But he discussed his American Trinity with his usual entertaining aplomb.  And Morris presented both the political landscape, and the governing as well as electoral challenges with conciseness and clarity.

Some of us who were looking for a little more wonkishness and a little less repeatition of the conference’s broad themes were disappointed by some of the presentations.  Frank Gaffney, a A-lister on the subject of Islamism if ever there was one, misplayed his time by taking too long to introduce Lt. Gen. Boykin, leaving himself less time to discuss his own subject area.  Michelle Malkin’s lunchtime talk was engaging, but lacked a theme.  Foster Friess, who could have delivered a free market health-care talk to rival Brooks’s speech, wandered too much to be effective.  These shouldn’t take away from what was achieved, but neither are they minor defects, and in future summits, one hopes that speakers can be persuaded to resist the temptation.

Judging from the turnout – over 600 people when 300 had been planned for – and the parade of candidates seeking to make their pitches to the crowd, it’s hard to call this anything but a major success for Colorado’s latest think-tank.

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