CPAC changes aimed at returning power to the people

CPAC: What is it?
CPAC: What is it?

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CPAC: What is it? 01:14

Washington (CNN)One of four children and now a father of five, Matt Schlapp knows that sometimes "life's a little messy."

"Sometimes people who love each other can have deep disagreements, and we should not shy away from it," Schlapp, first-year chairman of the American Conservative Union, explained in an interview last week.
And that's the philosophy Schlapp is applying in his job of organizing the Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC, that kicks off this week.
    Schlapp, a former White House political director under George W. Bush, is flipping the script on a conference that has been meeting annually for over 40 years at a time when the conservative movement is trying to find its bearings, define its positions on a slew of divisive issues and position itself for maximum influence headed into 2016.
    CPAC is getting a new look and feel, with changes to everything from the aesthetics to the content matter and a 21st-century social media gloss.
    But unlike a family of six or seven, sitting down to settle some squabbles, thousands of conservatives will put their differences on display in front of each other and before millions more during an event broadcast on TV.
    At CPAC this year, instead of a series of general, red meat oriented speeches by high-profile politicos that end at the last word on the teleprompter, potential 2016 presidential candidates will also have to sit down and take questions. And beyond that, CPAC 2015 aims to promote debate by seating conservative activists, lawmakers and thinkers with opposing views on the same panels.
    "It's OK that there will be television cameras rolling when we have these conversations," Schlapp said. "I think it's very important because otherwise what you end up doing is putting a show on where there's so much pressure to hide those disagreements and it's impossible."
    In forums on everything from immigration to drug legalization to national security, Schlapp's CPAC hopes to expose -- rather than paper over -- fissures in the conservative movement. And instead of quibbling about who qualifies as a "conservative" and should get an invite, Schlapp said he wants attendees to decide how wide the conservative label is.
    In a way, Schlapp is bringing the conference back to its roots, when CPAC was smaller, more intimate and a venue for at-times contentious debates, two alumni of the American Conservative Union explained.
    "The conservative movement and the purpose of the conference have never been to look like it's a bunch off people marching in lockstep to anything," said David Keene, who chaired the American Conservative Union for 27 years until 2011.
    Keene applauded Schlapp's attempt to inject more debate and "scale back the spectacle."
    And Craig Shirley, a Ronald Reagan biographer and former ACU board member who has attended CPAC since the 70s, said the conference has drifted away from the panels and debates of its earlier years and "became more just a celebrity spokesman bazaar."
    "It's good to see that it's getting back to the fundamentals," he said, pointing out that CPAC helped shape the conservative position on everything from Cold War foreign policy to the pro-life stance on abortion.
    "Too many candidates over the years -- whether it was Mitt Romney or whoever else -- came in there and gave a speech that they thought conservatives wanted to hear and then just walked out," Shirley said.
    Attendees will also get to learn the basics of grassroots activism on the first day of the conference during "bootcamp" training sessions --part of CPAC's efforts to rebrand itself as a year-round "event" that pushes will push conservatives to remain active after they leave the convention center.
    And activists will get a chance to prod potential candidates' conservative bona fides this week more so than in years past. And it's not just because of an invitation of more debate and inquiry, but part of Schlapp's efforts to build the conference around CPAC attendants more so than around the politicians.
    Potential presidential candidates won't speak from a platform propped several feet above the audience, but instead they'll address and engage with activists from a satellite stage that reaches into the crowd and puts them lower to the ground.
    It's a move that's part political commentary, part customer service for the thousands of conservative activists who shell out hundreds of dollars each to attend the four-day event.
    "It's really not about the speakers. It's about those folks, it's about those activists in the audience. That was intentional," Schlapp said. "I think for too many years the focus was on how do you give the best possible experience to the speaker and that's important -- we want to treat our speakers with respect -- but it's really not about them, it's about the folks that put the money on the table to come and hear them."
    The changes weren't easy to swallow for everyone. A Q&A forum may be where former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is at his best, but many speakers would rather avoid muddling their message with on-the-spot questions after a fine-tuned speech.
    Schlapp said he did get pushback from "people who are just used to things happening a certain way," but the potential for criticism didn't keep Schlapp from making changes he had been envisioning for years as a board member, he said.
    "We have not held back because of people's feelings. We didn't feel like that was the right guardrail," he said. "The right guardrail was could we implement it in time."