Leaders of the conservative movement sparred Friday over how to build a winning coalition following the disappointment of 2012, with some calling for a pivot to fresh ideas and others pushing for a recommitment to old ideals.
The debate at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference revealed the depth of disagreement among conservatives that remains more than four months after Mitt Romney lost the presidential election and congressional Republicans lost seats in both the House and Senate.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) told conservatives to get over their "obsession with zeros" and stop focusing only on the federal budget, arguing Republicans must take a broader view in order to succeed.
"We as Republicans have to accept that government number-crunching, even conservative number-crunching, is not the answer to our nation's problem,” he argued. "We somehow think that if we can just unite behind a proposal to cut the deficit and debt, if we could just put together a spreadsheet that all will be well. I'm here to say this obsession with zeros has everyone in our party focused on government ... on the phony economy of Washington, D.C., instead of the real economy out in Billings or Baton Rouge.”
That message was a direct refutation of the argument by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who focused the entirety of his speech on the House Republican budget. Ryan portrayed his plan as a moral document that could lead the party forward.
“A budget isn't just a list of numbers, it's an expression of our governing philosophy,” Ryan argued Friday morning. "We're not balancing the budget as an accounting exercise. We're not just trying to make the numbers add up. We are trying to improve people's lives. Our debt is a threat to this country. We have to tackle this problem before it tackles us."
That tension was on display in the speeches of a number of 2012 GOP presidential candidates given speaking slots at the event.
Mitt Romney urged CPAC attendees to "learn from my mistakes" and to look to purple- and blue-state GOP governors for guidance at appealing to swing voters. But some of the governors he name-checked — like Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) — weren’t invited or turned down an invitation.
Others were happy to argue the problem was with Romney, not the movement.
"The popular media narrative is that this country has shifted away from conservative ideas, as evidence by the last two presidential elections. That’s what they think, that’s what they say," Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said Thursday afternoon. "That might be true if Republicans had actually nominated conservative candidates in 2008 and 2012."
Others questioned the value of handwringing at all. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he was tired of hearing from the "crybaby caucus” and wanted to see more of an emphasis on the path forward.
“I’m a little tired of the hand-wringing. Conservatives were never meant to be part of the crybaby caucus,” he said. “I know folks have a lot of opinions about what happened in November, but seriously, how many conferences and lunch panels do we really need to have about it?”
"People are frustrated with the nit-picking. One of the big fights right now is is this a messaging problem or a policy problem? It's a both problem," GOP strategist Ford O'Connell said. "When it comes to the fiscal issues those are timeless but you're going to have to repackage them and explain to people why that impacts them. On the other side, I think there are some real policy issues that have to be taken on — what is our role in national defense? Where are we with certain social issues? What's worrisome going out of CPAC is, will the narrative be about the [candidates] in the past or will the narrative be about the people going forward?"
The event appeared to be less crowded Friday than it had on Thursday, when both Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) were big draws. With the focus on Beltway leaders and past candidates, the crowd seemed less enthralled. By the time House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) took the stage the ballroom was mostly empty.