What Does a Smart Person Do at CPAC?

Follow Derek Khanna, the GOP wunderkind that the House Republicans were too stupid to keep around.

Derek Khanna does an interview at CPAC

Derek Khanna at the Conservative Political Action Conference

Photo by Dave Weigel

The Republican Party’s future is sitting in the dark. It’s early Thursday morning, the start of the Conservative Political Action Conference, and Derek Khanna is somewhere in the shadowed media corner to the far left of the main stage. As Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey talks about the 2012 election, and how Republicans “never had an alternative, compelling narrative,” I find the 25-year-old Khanna in front of a laptop, tweaking some remarks about the balanced-budget amendment, fitfully paying attention to the noise from the podium.

“It’s typical flag-waving stuff,” he says. “Apart from Cuccinelli—Cuccinelli was surprisingly interesting.”

Ken Cuccinelli, the Virginia attorney general and candidate for governor, had given a pretty basic campaign speech to a crowd built to adore him. What impressed Khanna was Cuccinelli’s moderate twist. “Conservatives should lead the campaign to changing the culture of corrections in America,” Cuccinelli had said. Too many of his peers were “excited to lock people up and throw away the key.”

That was what Khanna wanted: Republicans talking about something new, tricky, important, even somewhat boring. Four months ago, while working for the House Republican Study Committee, Khanna put out a memo on the deeply un-sexy topic of copyright law. Intellectual property rights, wrote Khanna, were viewed as pure capitalism, when they should be treated as a government monopoly at its worst. The memo was retracted; Khanna was out of the RSC. David Brooks was merely the most famous pundit heralding Khanna as a brave new wonk, punished for an idea that “differed from the usual lobbyist-driven position.”

We know what the people in funny hats and Palin masks do at CPAC. We know all about the holdouts—ready for study or museum display at this point—who still laugh at Ann Coulter’s jokes. We know that William Temple, the “Tea Party patriot” who dresses in revolutionary-era garb and carries a Gadsden flag signed by Michele Bachmann, will make his Zelig way into every photo.

So what does the wise young wonk do at CPAC? Khanna is going to find out, because he’s been coming here for years, as a typical young Republican. “The [U-Mass] Amherst College Republicans would make the drive down here, every year, overnight,” he says as we walk out of the ballroom. “We were supposed to switch off drivers. We didn’t. So when I became president of the CRs, that was my first executive play: Making somebody else drive the car.”

Leaving the ballroom means entering a gauntlet of people who want your precious time—radio hosts, Tea Party News Network pundits, organizations both legendary (the NRA) and obscure, trying to bait passersby with candy or free pens. Khanna introduces me to his roommate, Chris Thomas, who’s repping a consumer rights group called Fan Freedom, devoted to unwinding the regulations that cover ticket sales. “We just had a good hearing in Minnesota,” he says, and he hands me a brochure with the Fan Freedom logo of a righteous fist grabbing a ticket and some equally righteous slogans:

We believe we have the right to buy, give away or sell tickets however we choose, anytime we choose, in any way we choose, at any price we choose.

Khanna leads me toward the escalators that lead to the rest of the exhibits. We run into a friend, a current College Republican, and Khanna ribs her for picking the wrong candidate in 2012.

“I worked for Santorum,” she admits, “because I didn’t like anyone else.”

“You worked for him because he’s awful!” says Khanna.

She has to take a phone call about her upcoming internship with Sen. Marco Rubio; Khanna takes the opportunity to wonder whether his unlocked phone will get him arrested at a congressional hearing on unlocking. It’s a rare note of pessimism, because this has been a pretty solid week for his issues. Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster on drone policy, for example, that revealed GOP enthusiasm for something the media didn’t know how to cover.

“When I was at the RSC, we put out a report on drones and included a section in there about the assassination of American citizens,” he says. “I have an academic article coming out—I presented it at the Atlantic Council—about how drone warfare really empowers the executive branch. I’ve been very concerned about that, very concerned about the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki.”

We cruise through the exhibit hall quickly, stopping only for Khanna to catch up with libertarian columnist David Harsanyi (“Let’s talk”) and with National Tax Foundation staffers who are excited for Khanna’s upcoming panel.

“I’m talking about a balanced-budget amendment that originates in the states,” he says.

“Phyllis Schlafly’s talking tomorrow, right?” asks the tax staffer, next to a mini putting green decorated with suggestions for possible spending cuts. “For some reason, she’s opposed to that.”

“Oh, it would be great if she took us on in her speech!” says Khanna.

We hear a short spiel for RedStateDate.com, “the only online dating site that perfectly blends love and politics,” and then we head toward the ballroom. Khanna spots Judson Phillips, who was, for a little while, the most powerful Tea Party activist in the country. It was Phillips who convened the Tea Party National Convention in Nashville three years ago, the one that featured Sarah Palin’s first “major speech” since she quit her Juneau day job.

“We’ve got to keep talking about the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” says Phillips. The 25-year-old and the Tea Partier talk about the need to educate Congress, and about Phillips’ Jerry Garcia tie, and then Khanna has to go to his speech.

“Derek’s going to do big things,” says Phillips. “The people who threw him under the bus will rue that day.”

They could have predicted it. Khanna wasn’t a particularly starry-eyed young conservative. “I was in the room at CPAC 2008, when Mitt Romney dropped out of the race,” he says. “I was devastated. Everyone I was with was devastated. John McCain was the next speaker on the schedule. So I went back in the room and my friends [who supported Romney] were like—Are you serious? Already?” The showiest moment in his old College Republican days was a “filibuster” to save the conservative newspaper on campus. He thought the paper was idiotic; he just didn’t want to see it shut down because it offended people.

Khanna gets collared for a Tea Party News Network interview, then heads in for his speech—“It’ll be boring.” He’s the youngest panelist on a subject with no dissenters present: Does America need a balanced-budget amendment? The debate, such as it is, pits the people who want states to pass the amendment first with the people who want it to come out of Congress. The Congress-first side is represented by Lew Uhler, a Robert Loggia lookalike who’s led the National Tax Limitation Committee ever since Ronald Reagan asked him to 41 years ago.

“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.”