House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan may spend more time with budget ledgers than budding activists, but his speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference shows he can sling red meat with the best of them.
"We are engaged in the battle of the American idea," Ryan said, arguing that "our rights come from nature and god, not from government."
Ryan cast fiscal policy debates as a moral challenge that must be answered with a return to "old ideas" like "liberty, freedom, [and] free enterprise."
"Economic conservatism and social conservatism come from the same moral roots," Ryan added, in what appeared to be a subtle rebuke to Republicans who have sought to separate social issues from conservatives' economic agenda. "You can't give up one to defend the other, and they must never be separated."
The conference attendees were familiar with Ryan, whose name recognition inside the beltway is not equaled by his national reputation, from the representative's turn responding to President Obama's State of the Union in January. Ryan, facing a task that has chastened more than one rising star, kept the response brief and focused on the foundation of conservatism.
"Before I thought he was boring and about the nitty-gritty," says Aaron Kidd, a student attending the conference from West Virginia, who lauded the youthful energy of Ryan, 42. "Any conservative can get up and talk about small government, but it takes someone special to relate it to people my age."
Thomas Wilbur, attending the conference from across the river in Vienna, VA, said he was impressed by Ryan's conservative policy credibility but wondered if he had the political chops and charisma to be a truly national political figure.