Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committeee chairman and defeated vice presidential candidate, has made his most extensive statement yet on the consequences of the Romney/Ryan loss to President Obama and what it means for Republicans in the next few years.

Speaking to a gathering sponsored by the National Review Institute in Washington, Ryan said Republicans must reconcile themselves to the president’s victory.  That means sometimes opposing Obama on fundamental issues, and sometimes working with him.  “Sometimes, we’ll have to reject the president’s proposals,” Ryan said.  “And sometimes, we’ll have to make them better.”  The key to choosing when to fight and when to compromise, Ryan said, is a sense of “prudence.”

“The president will bait us,” Ryan said.  “But we can’t get rattled.  We won’t play the villain in his morality plays.  We have to stay united.”

For example, Ryan says when it comes to entitlement reform and Obamacare, Obama will forever fight Republican efforts. “He needs to delegitimize the Republican Party — and House Republicans, in particular,” Ryan said.  “He’ll try to divide us with phony emergencies and bogus deals.  He’ll try to get us to fight with each other — to question each other’s motives — so we don’t challenge him.”

“If we play into his hands, we will betray the voters who supported us — and the country we mean to serve. We can’t let that happen.  We have to be smart.  We have to show prudence.”

Ryan took care to explain what he means by “prudence”:

What do I mean?  Well, prudence is good judgment in the art of governing.  Abraham Lincoln called it “one of the cardinal virtues.”  And it’s our greatest obligation as public servants.  We have to find the good in every situation—and choose the best means to achieve it.  We have to make decisions anchored in reality—and take responsibility for the consequences.  The prudent man is like a captain at sea.  He doesn’t curse the wind.  He uses it—to reach his destination.

I’m not saying we should be excessively cautious.  When we see an opening—however small—we should take it.  What I’m saying is, if we want to promote conservatism, we’ll need to use every tool at our disposal.  Sometimes, we’ll have to reject the president’s proposals.  And sometimes, we’ll have to make them better.

For Ryan personally, that moment of showing prudence came during the fight over the fiscal cliff, when Congress raised taxes on the nation’s top earners.  In the end, Ryan, who had long opposed any tax hike, voted for the increase, on the grounds that it kept taxes permanently low for the vast majority of Americans.

“I know we all didn’t see eye to eye on that vote,” Ryan said.  “But here’s how I saw it:  On January 1, a $4.4 trillion tax hike took effect.  The Senate voted overwhelmingly to prevent tax hikes for 98 percent of Americans.  It made the lower tax rates permanent — something we couldn’t achieve when George W. Bush was in office.  And President Obama got less revenue than the speaker offered in the first place.  In short, there was no way we’d get a better deal. That’s not to hide from the fact that this bill wasn’t perfect.  We wanted to keep taxes low for everyone.  We wanted to cut spending.  But this bill had to pass.  Otherwise, every single taxpayer would have paid higher taxes.  And our economy would have gone into a nosedive.  Once I came to that conclusion, my decision was simple: If you think a bill has to pass, then you vote for it.”

Ryan took care to show respect for fellow Republicans who voted the other way.  “I completely respect their decision,” he said.  “Prudence demands mutual understanding — especially among friends.”  And Ryan pointed to James Madison, who, when drafting the Constitution, did not get everything he wanted yet still shared the same goal as other Founders and fully supported the final document.  In a clear reference to today’s intra-party Republican conflicts, Ryan added: “[Madison] paid a price for his support.  When he ran for Congress, his political adversaries drafted James Monroe to run against him.  This was the 18th-century equivalent of ‘getting primaried.’  But Madison decided that, for all its imperfections, he would support the Constitution because it would save the Union.  Today, we’re the living beneficiaries of Madison’s prudence.”

Ryan ended on a note of optimism, praising Republican governors — he specifically mentioned Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Susana Martinez, Chris Christie, Bob McDonnell, and Mike Pence — who are “models” for the GOP in Washington.  “They work across the aisle whenever possible,” Ryan said.  Following those models, Ryan said, the Republican Party will eventually come back strong from the long fight against Obama and the Democrats: “With your help — and with a touch of prudence — we will win it.”