In the throngs of college kids (most of the CPAC audience this year) and mediocre panels and speakers, there have been flashes of hope and even brilliance at CPAC. Sure, you have to go looking for it, which is something the mainstream media is disinclined to do. But it is there.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) delivers remarks during the second day of CPAC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images) Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) delivers remarks during the second day of CPAC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Take Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who with a tower of 20,000 Obamacare pages of regulations behind him, gave the best speech I’ve heard him deliver. His theme — “don’t tell me” — was a feisty rebuttal to accusations about conservatives but also an open, inclusive and optimistic message. A sample:

Don’t tell me Democrats are the party of compassion. If you ask me, the liberal idea of helping the poor looks a lot more like fly paper than a safety net. Look, we’re concentrated on enabling dreams. They’re focused on managing expectations. So don’t come to me with that. …

The misery we see in so many cities in this country, especially among the poor — it isn’t the result of the free market. It’s the result of failed government programs. And we all know Detroit wasn’t run by a Republican.

And don’t tell me Democrats represent the interests of young people. Washington Democrats stand around like the lookout guy at a bank robbery, pretending nothing’s wrong — even as the Medicare and Social Security you’re all paying for goes broke.

His delivery was feisty and sharp, whether defending his wife from racist attacks from left-wingers or reminding the crowd of his defense of the First Amendment in battles over campaign financing.

His overall theme was that Democrats can’t change because they are beholden to special interests while conservatives have at their core an idea, freedom. It showed some populist leg, ragging on Democrats’ selling access to the White House, crony capitalism and bailouts. His most important admonition was this:

For too long, Democrats have preferred the thrill of political victory to the hard work of updating the creaky institutions of the great society for the age of the iPad. But we can do it.

We can update these institutions, because we’re not beholden to any special interest.

Our political power base isn’t the labor unions. It’s the Constitution. And, look, that should give every one of us hope, not only for our party but for our country. . .

And when the time comes for reform, and it will, we need to be ready with answers.

But I completely reject the notion that we have a winning message for an electorate that doesn’t exist anymore. Look, opportunity, growth, community, self-government, faith, family, life, innovation, choice, and freedom in all its varieties — these things never lose their worth, or their power to motivate and inspire. Society may change.

Demographics may shift. But the principles that make for a free and prosperous society never do. And conservatives, we own those principles.

McConnell showed that new thinking and a forward looking agenda is not a function of chronological thinking but of mindset. The stack of paper behind him and the reminder that Obamacare passed on a straight party-line vote, in essence a single vote on cloture in December 2010, was a powerful message that Republicans have to win elections.

And there was Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) who, as he previewed with Right Turn yesterday, spoke mostly on the budget comparing it to the Senate Democrats’ pathetic effort (“When you read it, you find the Vatican’s not the only place blowing smoke this week.”). He sketched out the overall shape of the GOP approach to the fiscal mess:

Our economy needs growth. Our entitlements need repair. They’re creaking under the pressure of growing health-care costs and an aging population. In just 10 years, spending on Medicare and Social Security will double. Spending on interest will quadruple. No amount of taxes can prop them up. Even with the president’s tax hikes, the deficit will be nearly a trillion dollars in 2023. The answer is clear: We have to fix our entitlements. And we have to grow the economy.

And then he argued that balancing the budget also puts government in proper perspective, so it does not swallow all of society:

We belong to one country. But we also belong to thousands of communities — each of them rich in tradition. And these communities don’t obstruct our personal growth. They encourage it. They are where we live our lives. So the duty of government isn’t to displace these communities, but to support them. It isn’t to blunt their differences or to flatten their character, or to mash them together into some dull conformity. It’s to secure our individual rights and to protect that diversity. That is the duty of government.

Our vision, our budget makes room for these communities to grow, so the people in them have room to thrive. We can’t just talk about these communities. We have to talk with them. We have to engage them — because leaders don’t just speak up. They listen too. And if we listen more closely to the people, we will find that the answers to our problems lie a lot closer to home.

What is not clear is whether there is more to this than simply restraining government. In the weeks and months ahead Ryan and others should flesh out that idea and tie it to policy proposals. How would he aid civic associations? What existing or new agenda items will help in reenforcing communities, improving the lives of families and returning schools to local and parental control?

These two figures might be considered “establishment” Republicans given their positions and longevity in Washington. But they are also competent, rational and well-grounded in 21st-century America. They do not believe we are going to return to pre-New Deal America or shut out the world. (McConnell movingly talked about his wife: “She came here in the hull of a ship, a freighter. Her parents couldn’t afford an airplane ticket. She was eight-years-old when she got here. She didn’t speak a word of English. She worked hard her whole life pursuing a dream, and she achieved that dream. It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with her.”) They understand conservatives have to offer alternatives and solve problems. Whether they can convince the majority of Americans, make good on their promise of a compelling agenda and recapture the Senate and White House remains to be seen.