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On eve of CPAC, GOP searches for identity and policy principles

When House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan was asked why his latest budget repeals the 2010 federal health-care -- despite the results of last year's presidential election -- the former Republican vice-presidential running mate gave this answer.

"So just because the election didn't go our way," he told National Review," that means we're supposed to change our principles?"

But on the eve of the three-day Conference Political Action Conference (CPAC) that begins on Thursday in the DC area and that will hear from countless Republican politicians, Ryan's answer raises this follow-up question:

What principles -- beyond opposing President Obama's agenda?

Is the GOP a free-market party, or one that's willing to federally bail out the banks if the country is on the brink of another Great Depression?

Is it a party that believes in strong national defense, or is it willing to wage a nearly 13-hour filibuster to highlight how drones could infringe on civil liberties?

Is the GOP a party that stresses deficit reduction and balanced budgets above all else, or is it one willing to support unpaid-for wars and unpaid-for new entitlements?

Is it a party that favors comprehensive immigration reform, or that opposes it?

Does the GOP oppose tax increases, or will it vote for raising rates on the wealthiest Americans?

And is it a party that opposes gay marriage, or one that's becoming more accepting of it?

Yes, the GOP believes in lower taxes and less government. But as Politico's Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman write, many of the tensions above will be on display at CPAC as the party -- after its second-straight presidential loss -- finds itself in the midst of an "identity crisis."

"The pillars of the conservative era ushered in by Reagan — a muscular defense, traditional cultural values and devotion to free markets – are being questioned by leading Republicans, and what could take the place of the Gipper’s trinity is now being openly debated in a fashion more reminiscent of the famously fractious Democrats of yore."

Ryan, who speaks at CPAC on Friday, embodies many of these very tensions. He warns of deficits and debt, but supported the Iraq war, the Bush tax cuts, and the Medicare prescription-drug benefit. He believes in the free market, but voted for the Troubled Assets Relief Program (or TARP). And he now supports comprehensive immigration reform (and maybe even a path to citizenship), but was on a presidential ticket opposing it.

Of course, it's only natural for a party outside the White House to experience an identity crisis. After all, there's no one true leader to unify the different constituencies. And the one unifying force is opposing the president in power -- and that's true whether a Democrat or Republican sits in the Oval Office.

Indeed, after their second-straight presidential loss in 2004, Democrats faced a similar identity crisis. Should it strenuously oppose the Iraq war, or support it? Push for universal health care, or ignore it? Disagree with the Bush-era tax cuts, or call for them to expire?

Yet by the time the Democratic race for president began, the top candidates -- Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson -- were unified on all the big issues. They opposed the Iraq war; they supported universal health care; they were against the Bush tax cuts. That's why the Democratic primary was fought over the margins (like whether there should be a mandate for health insurance).

And for Republicans, that's the story to watch over the next couple of years. It's one thing for the party to experience an identity crisis in 2013 and 2014. It's another thing -- as Obama prepares to exit office -- to experience that in 2015 and 2016.