Speeches

For those of you I haven’t had a chance to meet yet: my name is Mike Lee. I’m from Utah. And I’m not running for president.

I’m one of the few people up here today who can say that – and have reporters actually believe me.

But that’s why I’m here. And it’s part of the reason I was asked to speak first today.

As I see it, I have a different task up here than a lot of the other speakers.

I’m here to talk candidly with you – one conservative not running for president to another – about the immense task before us.

Because you and I – we have a job to do.

I hope everyone here realizes that. Because over the next year and a half, everyone in this room: it’s going to be our job very soon to help choose the next President of the United States of America.

If, that is, we’re up to it.

So I’m asking you right now: what do you think? Are we up to it?! Are we conservatives ready to pick the next great President of the United States?! Are you sure?!

I sure hope so. Because let’s be very honest: in recent years we haven’t been. Since Ronald Reagan left the White House in 1989, we’ve had six presidential elections. My party’s nominee – the Republican nominee – has lost the popular vote in five of those six elections.

And I’m here to tell you, if we don’t choose a serious, principled, proven conservative in 2016, that number is going to be six out of seven.

Those are the stakes.

Now, for the conservatives running for president, the hardest part of their job will begin on January 20, 2017 – when they hope to take the oath of office.

But for those of us conservatives who aren’t running, the hardest part of our job starts right now.

Now is the time – before the campaign truly begins – for us to think, long and hard, about the kind of candidate we’re looking for.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. And if it’s alright, I’d like to tell you about the leader I’m looking for... and why I think you might look for him – or her – too.

It seems to me conservatives should be looking for a candidate who is three things: principled, positive, and proven.

First, what does it mean to be principled?

Principled means being a conservative every day, not just during the campaign. Principled means there are no “buts” – as in, “I’m personally pro-life, but...” Or, “I want to repeal Obamacare, but...”

A principled conservative doesn’t hide behind talking points – he tells you what he thinks and why.

That’s not to say we have to agree on every issue. Serious conservatives disagree on issues all the time. And real conservatives don’t run from these disagreements – we embrace them.

Speaking to this conference in 1977, Ronald Reagan explained the importance of open, robust dialogue – not as a way to purify the conservative movement, but to expand it.

He said, [QUOTE] “If we truly believe in our principles, we should sit down and talk. Talk with anyone, anywhere, at any time if it means talking about the principles for the Republican Party. Conservatism is not a narrow ideology, nor is it the exclusive property of conservative activists.”

This is crucial for us to remember as we make our choices in 2016. Very often, you can learn a lot more about a candidate when he disagrees with you than when he agrees.

When the principled conservative disagrees with you on an issue, he admits it, and he has an authentically conservative reason for doing so.

That’s how you can tell the difference between someone who is a conservative on the stump – and someone who is truly a conservative, in his head and in his heart.

Ok... that’s “principled.” Next, what does it mean for a candidate to be positive?

A great man once said a true soldier fights not because he hates what’s in front him but because he loves what’s behind him.

Conservatives should hold to the same standard.

Because true conservatism isn’t just about the kind of government we don’t want; it’s about the kind of country we do want.

This has been true since America’s Founding. As much as we honor it, the original Boston Tea Party was just a protest. Dramatic and inspirational, yes, but inherently limited.

Today, the Boston Tea Party would only be a footnote in our history if that same generation of Americans didn’t make their way to Philadelphia fourteen years later to write the Constitution.

Like our Founding patriots, the positive conservative I’m looking for can tell us more than what he’s against. He will always tell us what he’s for.

He’s got a plan. He has specific political ideas about how to unite and grow our coalition, and specific policy ideas to reform our government.

And he doesn’t hesitate to tell you, in specific and concrete terms, what those ideas are.

Specificity here is critical. Generalizations and abstractions are the province of candidates who say one thing on the campaign trail, but do another thing once in office.

If conservatives truly want a government of, by, and for the people, we need to demand that our candidates tell us specifically how they will fix our tax code, reform our broken health care and education systems, and put an end to corporate welfare, like the Export-Import Bank and too-big-to-fail Wall Street banks. Not just platitudes, but policies.

Ok... that’s “principled” and “positive.” Now finally, what does it mean for a candidate to be proven?

To me, it means two things.

I’m looking for someone who has proven himself by winning big, difficult fights on election days. And I’m looking for someone who has won big, difficult fights after election day, while in office.

We shouldn’t be looking for just one and rolling the dice on the other. Conservatives should demand both: a candidate who has shown he can win elections, and later shown that he deserved to.

Someone who has stood on principle when the going got tough, and has the battle scars that prove it.

Yet also someone who has shown he can win broad mandates and build diverse coalitions to overcome entrenched interests... And not just the special interests in the other party, but those in his own.

The conservative candidate who ignores moderates is as misguided as the moderate candidate who ignores conservatives. The candidate we all deserve can attract both without alienating either.

Principled. Positive. Proven.

Right now, we don’t have any candidates yet, and everyone deserves an equal chance to meet that standard. But make no mistake: that should be the standard.

That leads me to my final point: Meeting that standard – principled, positive, and proven – isn’t just going to be up to the candidates themselves. It’s going to be up to us.

Just as businesses in the free market follow consumer demand, political candidates take their cues from the voters. We have the power in this process – but only if we are willing to use it... only if we are willing to expect more of our would-be leaders, and more of ourselves.

We have a job to do. And that job is not to find the guy who can shout “Freedom” the loudest, or tell the funniest Joe Biden jokes.

If that’s what conservatives reward – in the next year and over the next two days – with cheers and standing ovations and straw-poll votes, then that’s all conservatives will ever get: Talking points, and platitudes, and empty promises.

When conservatives elevate unserious presidential candidates, who are not principled, positive, and proven, it’s not the media’s fault, or the Establishment’s fault... it’s ours.

Republican presidential candidates in 2016 are only going to be as good as conservatives demand them to be in 2015.

So let’s demand that they be extraordinary.

Imagine for a moment the impression this audience could leave with a candidate if each of you refused to give a standing ovation to every trite one-liner, empty platitude, or hollow political slogan that you hear over the next day and a half.

Or imagine if no one in the conservative movement – not a single soul – donated a dime of their money or a moment of their time to any candidate who talks a big game about cutting big government, but never gets around to explaining how he would fix broken government.

I guarantee you every one of our serious presidential candidates would immediately run on a positive, innovative, and unapologetically conservative agenda.

An agenda that takes our timeless principles and applies them to the challenges of our time. An agenda that empowers the individuals, families, and communities that Washington’s corrupt nexus of big government, big business, and big special interests is leaving behind.

Imagine the conservative leader who would emerge from that campaign – what he could do to reunite our party, reconnect it with the American people, and reform the government policies holding them back.

That’s a candidate and a campaign we can all look forward to.

More importantly... far more importantly: that’s the candidate and the campaign the American people have been waiting for.

It is the candidate Americans deserve, and the one conservatives can produce, if we stay true to our own highest ideals.

That’s the candidate I’m looking for in 2016, and I’m asking for your help to find him.