They might talk about it in downtown Washington. But moderation and compromise weren’t up for discussion as conservatives gathered to plot strategy Friday in the suburb of Oxon Hill, Md., down the Potomac River.
Higher revenues for the government were anathema at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference at a resort just south of Washington, which continues Saturday. So were same-sex marriage, abortion, gun control and Democrats.
“We are leading the way. We are pro-life, pro-family. Anyone who is not with us is going to be challenged,” said Brooke McGowan, the North Carolina and South Carolina project director for the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, an activist group.
Seldom was heard a dissenting word, because those who might do so either didn’t mention the controversial stuff or they weren’t invited.
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Republicans are trying to recover from the 2012 elections. The Republican National Committee is on a soul-searching mission, trying to find out what went wrong and what might be adjusted. A report is due to be released Monday. The conservatives here didn’t seem eager to see it, however.
They did hear from 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and they gave him a polite welcome.
“It’s up to us to learn from our mistakes and my mistakes,” he said, but he didn’t stir much enthusiasm when he suggested learning from Republican governors. He praised governors who “reach across the aisle,” and named the center-right New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who wasn’t invited here.
Instead, the crowd reveled in a lineup that featured mogul Donald Trump lauding “the tea party, which I love so dearly,” former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum touting his new “Patriot Voices” movement and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., ripping Democrats as “the party of shared hardship.”
The conservatives met as many establishment Republicans want to tone down the rhetoric and refocus the party.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a potential 2016 presidential contender, tried to offer a more somber message at the CPAC meeting. Stop stressing how much they want to cut spending: “Government number crunching, even conservative number crunching, is not the answer to our problems.”
So, he warned Republicans, “We must not become the party of austerity. We must become the party of growth.”
That kind of mood was clear among establishment Republicans at the Capitol this week as they met with President Barack Obama. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he hoped that Obama’s meeting with Senate Republicans “will get us to a solution” on fiscal issues.
That attitude wasn’t well received at the conference, however.
“Take off your rose-colored glasses. This guy (Obama) doesn’t want to work with any of you,” said Diana Reimer, a coordinator for the Georgia-based Tea Party Patriots.
The throng was more excited about South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who vowed, “As long as I’m governor of South Carolina, we will not expand Medicaid on President Obama’s watch.” States may expand the joint federal-state health care program for lower-income people and the federal government will pay full costs for new beneficiaries for three years starting in 2014.
Some Republican governors have gone along with the expansion idea, some have not.
The crowd also loved Ryan, the losing 2012 vice-presidential nominee – a fact he didn’t mention – who this week proposed a plan to balance the budget in 10 years without raising taxes.
“We don’t hide behind our beliefs. We argue for them,” he said, “because a budget is more than just a list of numbers. It’s an expression of our governing philosophy. And our budget draws a very sharp contrast with the left.”
The hundreds at the conference considered themselves the latest in a long line that began roughly 50 years ago, when the conservative movement first gained momentum with leaders such as author William F. Buckley Jr., then-actor Ronald Reagan and 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater.
“The hardworking people listen to everything we do. The establishment business-as-usual patronage wing of the party tries to impose its own will,” said Adam Andrzejewski, the founder of OpenTheBooks.com, which promotes government transparency.
Attendees lauded the Club for Growth, which promotes limited government, for threatening to launch primary challenges against Republicans who aren’t sufficiently conservative. Many here vowed, for example, to challenge Republicans who wouldn’t support Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster last week over the Obama administration’s drone policy.
“We look to principle, not politics. I hate politics,” said Matthew Burke, an Arizona-based social media specialist for the Tea Party News Network. “We are fighting the Republican establishment.”