NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—The second day of the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) forced attendees to recall recent history.
Day one of the event, which gathers thousands of conservatives from across the country, highlighted rising Republican stars like Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky. It marked an effort to move on from last November’s election losses.
But on Friday, CPAC brought back that past. And many in attendance seemed to embrace it.
Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, took the stage Friday afternoon to a rousing and sustained standing ovation. The former Massachusetts governor, who worked hard over the last several years to win favor from the CPAC crowd, soaked in the audience’s approval, putting his hand to his heart.
When the applause died down, Romney urged conservatives to not let the November defeat dampen their enthusiasm for America.
“I utterly reject pessimism,” he said. “We have not lost the country we love, and we have not lost our way.”
For examples of the source of his hope, Romney pointed to people he had met during his campaign travels across the country. He told stories of perseverance and risk-taking by individuals from Nevada to New Hampshire.
“The heart of America is good,” Romney said. “Our land is blessed by the hand of God. May we as a people always be worthy of His grace.”
Romney did not linger long on last year’s race for the White House. He said it was important “to make sure that we learn from our mistakes … and my mistakes.” But he did not provide specific examples of those errors.
“As someone who just lost the election, I’m probably not in the best position to chart the course for the next one,” Romney added.
Instead, he pointed to the success of the nation’s 30 Republican governors, stressing that conservatives should listen to governors from blue and purple states such as New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Virginia’s Bob McDonnell. Romney’s mention of Christie and McDonnell represented a jab at CPAC organizers, who did not invite the New Jersey and Virginia leaders to this year’s event after they had veered from conservative orthodoxy.
Romney also poked at those in the GOP pushing for a leaner military, like current conservative hero Rand Paul. Romney argued that a muscular military presence is the only way America “can preserve freedom for us and around the world.”
The speech seemed like Romney’s farewell to the national political stage. He closed by telling the crowd he was “sorry that I will not be your president.”
Earlier in the day U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney’s vice presidential running mate, addressed CPAC, and unlike Romney, Paul’s remarks made it clear that he was not preparing to exit the political arena. While Romney’s speech was philosophical, Ryan, who is chairman of the House Budget Committee, focused on policy.
The Wisconsin congressman blasted the federal budget released this week by Senate Democrats for including a trillion-dollar tax hike.
“The Vatican is not the only place blowing smoke this week,” Ryan said. “If we did nothing and not pass their budget, the government would save money.”
Ryan said that he disagreed with those who believe that the nation is in a recovery. America is still in “critical care,” he said, blaming the nation’s debt, calling it a symbol of government’s overreach.
“It is a sign that the federal government is doing too much, and when government does too much it doesn’t do anything well,” Ryan said, offering talking points to the audience of grassroots activists. “We need to make this point more often.”
The new House version of the federal budget, authored by Ryan, seeks to balance the budget within the next 10 years. Democrats, as they have done in previous years, attacked Ryan’s budget for gutting services to the poor and benefits for the elderly. Ryan pushed back on Friday: “We don’t see the debt as an excuse to cut with abandon, to shirk our obligations. We see it as an opportunity to reform government to make it leaner and more effective.”
The day’s most emotional speech came from Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania who gave Romney a run for his money during last year’s battle for the GOP presidential nomination. Santorum began by fighting back tears as he recounted a hospital visit he made this week to see his dying nephew. From this personal tragedy, Santorum pivoted to talk about the nation’s suffering. He blamed the culture and political leaders for robbing America of its purpose.
“America, in its essence, is a moral enterprise,” Santorum said, “focused on the dignity of every human person.”
He criticized godless societies where government instead of faith has become the center of life. Santorum warned against those in government who offer to give Americans more “stuff” in order to dull their pain. Commitment and love, he said, are among the things that the government can never give.
With the media and political pundits pushing the storyline that the Republican Party is in the throes of an identity crisis, Santorum had a strong question for conservatives who favor abandoning their moral underpinnings for the sake of winning the next election: “What does it profit a movement to gain a country and lose its own soul?”