Face of change at American Conservative Union
Generation Xer Matt Schlapp ready to ruffle feathers
Matt Schlapp, the new chairman of the American Conservative Union and its first born after the group’s founding a half-century ago, is moving quickly to put a uniquely 21st-century touch on one of the political right’s most sacred establishments.
And in classic Generation X fashion, the 40-something strategist who cut his political teeth inside George W. Bush’s White House expects to ruffle a few feathers inside an organization dominated for years by baby boomer conservatives addicted to a steady diet of William F. Buckley Jr., Ronald Reagan and Stan Evans.
“Some will not like our new approach, including some in conservatism’s Old Guard, but we have to take this challenge on,” Mr. Schlapp told The Washington Times. “Our philosophy won’t change, but the challenges facing the country are always new. The same is true for ACU.”
For instance, Mr. Schlapp wants to expand the group’s signature Conservative Political Action Conference from an annual three-day event into a 365-day experience. He plans to accomplish that through online engagement of larger audiences who can’t afford to make the annual pilgrimage to Washington for CPAC or aren’t within easy travel distance of the regional ACU events that his predecessor, Al Cardenas, established.
Social media, online events and instant email alerts are all going to play bigger roles in the group’s grass-roots efforts. The aim is to create a counterbalance to President Obama and the left’s gigantic electronic tether to voters, he said.
And, because the ACU leadership is often made up of lobbyists, lawyers, pollsters and advocacy group executives with their own agendas, he wants to make the ACU’s decisions more transparent by creating an “informal advisory group” to address potential conflicts of interest.
“These advisers I name will not be toadies but smart people who will push back and say, ‘Hey, we can’t do this or that because,’” said Mr. Schlapp, who, like two of his immediate predecessors, operates his own lobbying firm.
The advisory group will hash over proposed policies and new projects, he said.
“As the new chairman, I will not be making unilateral decisions in the privacy of my office,” he said. “I am going to make sure we have savvy people discussing proposed policies and projects that concern the broader conservative community.”
Mr. Schlapp’s immediate predecessor, Al Cardenas, was a lawyer and lobbyist. The ACU’s longest-serving chairman, now Washington Times opinion editor David A. Keene, was a lobbyist who began his Washington career as an aide to Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.
Like his predecessors, Mr. Schlapp has a reputation for public diplomacy and restraint, and he even sports a healthy head of silver hair (in his case somewhat prematurely for his age of 46).
But as a classic Generation X member, he also can exude a youthful passion about the issues he cares about deeply, isn’t afraid to be sharply candid and sees a changing landscape in which big business can’t always be seen as the ally of a conservative movement that values liberty above all.
“Americans in this century should not make the assumption that corporations are free market or conservative,” Mr. Schlapp said at one point in the interview. “Rather, they are out to maximize value for shareholders and that often involves too much government.
“Yes, people at the top of American corporations in some cases are politically conservative but in most cases it’s the opposite — they’re not conservative,” he said.
More often than not, lawyers in charge of corporations’ philanthropic decisions are liberals from elite universities, Mr. Schlapp added, making the point that it can be problematic for conservative organizations like his to rely on consistent corporate philanthropy.
Mr. Schlapp said he will survey perceptions “among conservative organizations that have fallen away from us because we haven’t been engaging them. I want to have conversations with supporters who have not given us money in the last five years. And I want to see that our funding program is cutting-edge and modern. From what I have seen, it is not.
“Nor do we have a 21st-century communications program,” he said, “but we will.”
American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp says social media, online events and email alerts will play bigger roles.