The first day of the Conservative Political Action revealed a split among Republican leaders about their visions for the future of the party.
Should the GOP be an uncompromisingly conservative party? Does it need to be more pragmatic and more inclusive? Or should winning be its only goal?
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, argued that past Republican presidential nominees have lost because they weren’t conservative enough.
"Y'all remember President McCain? President Romney? Those are good men, decent men, but when you don't stand a draw a clear distinction, when you don't stand for principle, Democrats celebrate.”
Rep. Paul Ryan, who was Mitt Romney’s 2012 vice-presidential running mate, had a slightly different take: The GOP needs to become a bigger tent by winning over more Americans.
“A majority party welcomes debate. It brings people in. It doesn’t burn heretics. It wins converts,” he said.
And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – who has won election twice in his blue state – had a different recommendation for the conservative audience: Just win, baby.
“We don't get to govern if we don't win,” he said. “Let's come out of this conference resolved to win elections again.”
Each of these paths touch on a central question for Republicans ahead of the next presidential contest in 2016: What should the GOP be? Among the possibilities:
- A conservative party
- A big-tent party
- A party anchored by Tea Party outsiders
- A party led by the establishment
- A party that not only can win in the South but also in the Northeast and large metropolitan areas
- All of the above
Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, touched on those debates at the beginning of his remarks. “The way the left tells it, the Republican Party is in a civil war. It’s Tea Party versus establishment, libertarians versus social conservatives," he said. “Look, I’m Irish – that’s my idea of a family reunion.”
Turning serious, Ryan added, “I don’t see this great divide in our party. What I see is a vibrant debate.”
And that vibrant debate was clearly on display at CPAC. For Cruz, winning means standing unapologetically for conservative values. “[D.C. consultants] say if you stand for principles you lose elections! The way to do it- the Washington way is don't stand against Obamacare, debt ceiling.”
“That is a false dichotomy,” Cruz said. “You want to lose elections? Stand for nothing!”
Ryan also said conservative principles are important, but he said what was more important was the overall direction “Now there’s a fine line between being pragmatic and being unprincipled,” he said. “But the true test is not which specific path you take; it’s whether you move the country in the right direction.”
And Christie said Republicans must embrace their ideas and vision for the country. “We've got to start talking what we're for and not what we're against,” he said. “Our ideas are better than their ideas, and that's what we need to stand for.”
NBC’s Katie Wall contributed to this article.