Isn’t it interesting that the same establishment that claims so piously that it wants more civility and tolerance in our politics has no problem degrading and demonizing Americans who just happen to be conservative?
They want desperately to put this cause in some graveyard; I’m told the president’s inaugural speech had the working title “the country I would build if half of America would just disappear”. They try so hard to paint the beliefs in this room as some quaint, outmoded brand of ignorance.
So this needs to be said: there are about 43 million of us who answer to the name “conservative”; we don’t own any Hollywood studios, the mainstream media may think we are out of fashion, but this is the single biggest voting bloc, this is our America too and we are not going anywhere.
Deriding conservatives may be the last acceptable prejudice, but sneers can’t erase the truth: first, you don’t lift up people at the bottom by pulling other people down, and every place that has tried that path has turned out its own moral lights and gone down into the darkness.
So, can we bring to a close this season of pundits who don’t want Republicans to win telling Republicans how to fix this party?
Now that does not mean that we don’t need to be frank with each other. So, I want to be blunt about what we did and did not do in this last race: first, for voters who look at the world the way we do, we made an impeccable argument.
For most people who have had the blessing of building a business from nothing, or who have found a way to punch through Washington’s obstacles to make their companies work, we made an effective case that no government in the modern era has ever fought harder to put a penalty on success.
For those who share our sense that winning an election does not entitle a president to burn a hole in our constitution, we made the case that no president in our lifetime has ever pushed up harder against the bounds of that constitution.
And for 43 million conservatives, we made the case that no president has ever ended up driving America more decisively to the left on domestic and social policy.
There is only one catch: you can add up all of our fellow citizens who are succeeding or building a business, and add all the voters who judge government by how closely it hews to the framers’ original constitutional vision, and then add all the voters who judge government primarily by whether it fits every tenet of conservative doctrine, you get a lot of good people but you still don’t get to a majority.
And the ones who are left, they are not some island of fools, they are our neighbors and our fellow citizens and a lot of them think like us, they just needed to hear that our values will work for their lives and their circumstances.
I want you to think about this: there are over 21 million families who have children enrolled in colleges: that happens to be one of the largest groups in the electorate, and they are trying to pursue one of the most inherently conservative values in this society, the notion that you ought to prepare yourself so that you can rise without depending on anybody.
But four out of five of those kids can’t finance college without taking out significant loans that will burden them for much of their work-life. How often did they or their families hear us talking about the fact that the conservative, responsible act of getting a college education is getting harder and costlier than it has ever been?
What about the 12 million Americans who work with their hands, and whose backs and legs hurt at the end of the day? Their wages go no further today in pure earning power than they did when the Supremes and the Beatles were at the top of the charts and Ronald Reagan was an actor giving speeches at Lincoln Dinners.
The most these men and women merited in Barack Obama’s inaugural manifesto was one half-hearted sentence. But even though many of these so-called blue collars are as conservative and faith oriented as anybody in this room, just how often did we talk to them?
You know, this will shock you but sometimes I do get asked why we didn’t do better with minorities given what the last four years have done to them; you may remember when the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus famously said that if another president had matched Obama’s record, that there would have been marches in the street.
Yes, we did talk about jobs, but guess what, black and brown Americans are no different from anybody else and as much as they worry about what’s missing in their lives, they worry most about whether their kids can do better, and they know that question turns first and foremost on the quality of the schools their kids attend.
They live through what some of the rest of us hold seminars about: tenure laws that privilege bad teachers, the promotion of kids who can’t read, not having enough money to move your kids to a better school district or to afford private schools. But just how much did we talk about any of that?
I know some of us like to lament the fact that anyone might look to government to do anything other than get out of the way, but please realize this: the Americans I am describing aren’t takers, they aren’t living off the government dime; they are helping fund this government as much as anybody at our dinner last night, the difference is that when Washington takes their money from them, they feel it even more deeply than any of us do.
And there is something we should appreciate as conservatives who crusade for low taxes: the Americans I describe are invariably sending one dollar out of every three they earn to Washington in federal income or social security taxes; if they don’t owe anything at the end of the year it is because they have already had it taken out of their pay-checks. They don’t live on dividends and their accountants can’t game them out of their liability. Is it really so odd that they expect the government they help subsidize to align with their interests?
So, we just spent a billion dollars, more than our side has ever had to tell its case, and we still couldn’t find the language to tell enough Americans why our conservative policies would work in their lives.
We became the first Republicans since the thirties who didn’t talk about middle class tax relief, the first Republicans in my lifetime who didn’t have the self confidence to talk about how our polices reduce poverty and lift the poor out of dependency, the first Republicans since WWII who didn’t seem to get that in this competitive world, education is part of promoting the common defense.
So is it any surprise that we are the first Republicans in the modern era to see the number of conservatives fall, and the number of liberals rise, on our watch?
Now here’s the good news, I think this loss hurt bad enough that we are going to fix it. And fixing it begins with some simple principles: First, if your vision of conservatism is so small and so cramped that it only works in certain places and for certain people, you are entitled to believe that.
But keep your lack of confidence to yourself, get out of the way, let the rest of us try to build something that will work for everybody, that can travel not just to the high places but the shattered places, not just inside our gated walls but in the places we don’t go.
Second, being conservative doesn’t mean being blind to how our policies affect families: this world is not a theory, it’s made of citizens who deserve a politics that will speak to their aspirations. Ronald Reagan didn’t win 49 states by telling people he had a philosophical objection to helping their families.
Lastly, never lose sight of the essential difference between the political left and right in this country: they think that to struggle and to be poor is to be so weak that you can never rise as an individual. So they argue that government has to build a web of collectivism and dependency around people; that American has to wrap a racial or gender identity around someone to recognize them.
We think that there is nothing a man or woman can’t do if we give them the freedom to rise on their own: we have always known that a child who has difficulty reading can one day grow into a heart surgeon named Ben Carson, that a father who waits tables can raise a son to be a senator named Marco Rubio, that a black nurse who works 16 hour days in South Carolina can set a son on the path to being a senator named Tim Scott.
They think individuals are weak, we know individuals are strong.
So what we believe works. This conference is not just a collection of conservatives; it is a gathering of men and women who have seen the American dream work magic in our own lives.
And if we order our cause around these simple principles–people are strong, they deserve our concern, and our values are big and spacious enough that they work for all of us and not just some of us–not only will we earn power again, we will deserve power again.