Ryan calls for unity among Republicans
"Whenever Republicans lose an election, a factional dispute arises about economic issues versus moral or social issues. Traditionalists and libertarians blame each other, each claiming Republicans would do better without the other," said Ryan, the Janesville lawmaker.
"Why anyone would think a minority could grow into a majority by splitting itself in half is a political and mathematical mystery to me," he said.
Ryan was one of two Midwestern conservatives featured at the gathering, hosted by the Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, which is funded by Milwaukee's Bradley Foundation. The other was Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.
Both men are popular in the conservative movement and regarded as good political models by fellow Republicans. Daniels has been touted as a potential presidential candidate in 2012, but he ruled that out here Wednesday.
Daniels said conservatives need to be activist, aggressive and experimental in their ideas but friendlier in tone. He skeptically noted President Barack Obama's much-discussed desire for "empathy" in a Supreme Court nominee. But the governor said that in the political and public-policy debate, empathy is a quality that the right needs to display.
"The ability to put oneself in the place, and to feel deeply about, the concerns and the hopes and the dreams and the fears of other people is something that must be visibly a part of what we do," said Daniels, adding that conservatives have to "assert with credibility that we understand what is going on in the lives of everyday people."
The stated theme of the event was "Making Conservatism Credible Again," part of a running conversation on the right about the lessons of the GOP's election defeats and the future of the movement.
Like other gatherings of its kind, it featured a mix of horror about the Obama agenda (spending, deficits, government ownership of car companies); faith that conservative principles remain popular with the public; confidence that Democrats are overreaching; anxiety about how long it will take to come back politically; and gallows humor about the plight of the GOP.
A far larger gathering on the left was held this past week in Washington, an annual conference of liberal activists organized by the Campaign for America's Future. According to a straw poll, 90 percent of those in attendance approved of the president's performance, 3 percent viewed Rush Limbaugh favorably, and more than 80 percent backed an investigation of the fraud and excesses of Wall Street.
At the conservative event, meanwhile, Ryan lamented what he described as the threat to Western civilization posed by the erosion of market freedoms, and Daniels decried the "shock-and-awe statism of the last few months."
Daniels said conservatives need to be single-minded about addressing their political arguments to young voters, who voted overwhelmingly for Obama in the last election. He cited as one example the "terrifying deficits" in the Democratic budget and "the threat that poses to every young person in this country."
On the issue of immigration, a divisive one within the GOP, Daniels said it was vital to push newcomers to assimilate and speak English.
But he added: "I think it's a grave, grave mistake to act as though … in any way becoming a more multi-ethnic society is a threat to America. It's a reality, and it can be the strength of America as it's always been, if we embrace it."