Developing a modernized, principled conservative reform agenda
Thank you very much. It’s a privilege to be with you this morning at the Values Voter Summit.
I want to start this morning by telling you a story that I first heard from a man named Emo Phillips. He was walking across a bridge. It was late enough there was no automobile traffic on that bridge. In fact, there was no one on the bridge at all. So he was able to walk in the middle of the bridge. It was a high bridge. A bridge that stretched over a large river. It was high enough that anyone who fell off of that bridge would not survive the impact, even if they landed in the water.
He saw a man standing on the outside of the guardrail as if getting ready to jump. He knew based on the height of the bridge the man wouldn't survive the fall and he surmised the man was contemplating ending his life. Determined not to allow this to happen, Emo stopped and engaged the man in conversation.
He asked first if the man were a believer, if he believed in God. The man said, yes. Emo said, me too. He said, are you a Christian? The man said, yes. Emo said, me too. He asked the man if he were a Baptist. The man said yes. Emo said, me too.
“Are you a northern Baptist or southern?” “I'm a northern Baptist.” “Me too!”
“Are you a northern fundamentalist Baptist or reformed Baptist?” “I'm a northern fundamentalist Baptist.” “Me too!”
“Are you a northern fundamental Baptist of conference 1812 or 1857?”
He said, “northern fundamental Baptist of conference 1857.”
And I said “Die heretic!,” and pushed him off the bridge!
As values voters we must remember that it is far more important to keep our eyes on potential conservative converts – rather than heretics. You see, the principles that unite us are also the principles that position us to win the hearts and minds of voters across the country.
Too often in this town we stop thinking about the things that matter most. We get so caught up in the thick of things that we not only stop thinking big – we often stop thinking at all – which leads to other things - like $17 trillion debt, widespread dysfunction, and much more.
To illustrate the point, I want to tell you a story about my boys. I've got twin boys, 18 years old, their names are James and John. These sons of thunder as I sometimes call them are good boys. They go to church, they read their scriptures, they are 4.0 students.
On this particular day we were listening to the radio in my car. We were listening to a song on the radio, a song we had heard many times, a song that I hadn't listened to very carefully in the past.
All of a sudden for one particular reason or another, I started listening to the words this day. And I realized that these words were not necessarily good. They were not the words that any god-fearing father of teenage boys would want his kids hearing. All of a sudden I pointed out to them, this is a raunchy song, this is terrible. My son John without batting an eye said, “Dad, it's not bad if you don't think about it.” All of a sudden the horrific thought occurred to me, my son John must be advising the President of the United States!
You see, a $17 trillion debt isn't bad, but only if you don't think about it. Adding to that debt at a rate of a trillion dollars a year isn't bad, if you don't think about it. And a massive government takeover of our health care system isn't bad if you don't think about it.
If you do think about it, of course, all those things are horrible. If you do think about it, the very best argument against Obamacare is the president's conduct during the first ten days of this shutdown. I mean, look what's happened. The president is using the immense power of the federal government to hurt the American people. Why? In order to win a political argument. What happens then when we turn over some of the most private, intimate decisions in our lives, our health care system, to the government? When will that be used as a tool against us? We must stop it it, we must defund it, we cannot accept it.
You are here today because you ARE thinking about it.
The Republican Party is at its best when we are thinking about it. Unfortunately some people succumb to the notion that we can’t think deeply in the middle of big battles on heated issues. I say this is exactly what we should be doing – TODAY! And every day. Because when we stop and think we come back home to being the party of big ideas. Throughout our party’s history, the bigger our ideas, the more we have succeeded.
Ronald Reagan’s conservative revolution. The 1994 Contract with America. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”
Whatever you might think of each of the above, they all showed in their time that it is ideas and principles – rather than personalities or interest groups - that unify the Republican Party and propel it to both electoral and governing success.
Lately we haven’t had much of either.
Some say it’s because we need better candidates. Some say we need a better message. Others say it’s a dispute about tactics and strategy, or technology.
And certainly they all play a part.
But to my mind, what the Party of Ideas is really missing… is the ideas. For too long, Republicans have put off the difficult work of developing a modernized, principled conservative reform agenda to meet many of the new challenges of the 21st century.
There are many reasons why this is so. But I think the biggest is that in this city, conservatives often fall into a trap – defining ourselves by what we are against
Big government… debt… higher taxes and regulations… oh and I almost forgot - Obamacare.
But we haven’t invested nearly as much time and energy in communicating what we conservatives are for.
I’m talking about more than simply the policies we advocate. Conservatism is not about the bills we want to pass, but the nation we want to be. As you know, for conservatives, politics is just a means, not an end.
The real goal - what conservatives are really for - is not an agenda for government. It’s a vision of society. A view of the world we want to build, together.
Together. That word, “together,” is an essential – and too often overlooked – part of what we conservatives believe.
We’re all committed to bedrock principles of individual liberty, individual rights, and personal responsibility.
But the reason we fight for individual freedom is the strength, vitality, and value of the communities free individuals form.
The alternative to big government is not small government.
The alternative to big government is a thriving, flourishing nation of cooperative communities – where your success depends on your service.
It’s a free enterprise economy where everyone works for everyone else, competing to see who can figure out the best way to help the most people.
And it’s a voluntary civil society, where free individuals come together to meet each other’s needs, fill in the gaps, and make sure no one gets left behind.
Conservatism has never been a vision of isolated loners.
Ours is a vision of husbands and wives; parents and children; neighbors and neighborhoods; volunteers and congregations; bosses and employees; businesses and customers; clubs, teams, groups, associations and friends.
We conservatives don’t simply want smaller government – that’s not enough. We want bigger citizens, stronger neighborhoods, and more heroic communities.
We understand what liberals do not. That in America, freedom doesn’t mean “you’re on your own.” Freedom means “we’re all in this together.”
The value we place on communityis based on the value we place on the first and most important human community of them all: the family.
Conservatives have argued for years that the family must be at the core of our worldview.
On issues like school prayer, or the right to life, or traditional marriage, or home-schooling, conservatives have said protecting the family is the most important part of our moral agenda.
Today, some critics say that times have changed… and we have to change with them. They say we have to reach out to people beyond our conservative base. They say we have to change the way we think and talk about families.
It may surprise some of you to hear… but I think they make a great point.
Times have changed. We do need to broaden our appeal, and change the way we think and talk about family.
But ultimately, the critics have it backwards. The problem is not that conservatives have focused too muchon the family -- but far too little.
For the rapid changes we have seen in recent years in America have only made the family more important, not less.
The family is the foundation not only of our society, but of our economy, our culture, and our democracy as well.
The family is indivisible from any facet of America’s history or destiny.
Crises like divorce, fatherlessness, and social isolation – while moral in nature – have enormous social and economic consequences.
In the same way, economic problems like unequal opportunity; stagnant wages; and the spiraling costs of housing, health care, and education represent moral threats to family stability… and national success.
Working families today are bearing the brunt of all of the above. And as a result, too many are falling behind.
Abraham Lincoln explained that the role of government should be for every citizen at every stage of life:
“…to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.”
Lincoln’s insight offers an almost perfect distillation of what America - and the Republican Party, at its best - stand for: equal opportunity, for all, to pursue happiness.
Today, this fundamental American ideal is hanging by a thread.
Up and down American society – which used to be defined and driven by what Tocqueville called our “yearning desire to rise” - we find a new and unnatural stagnancy.
We find the underprivileged trapped in poverty, sometimes for generations.
We find the middle class caught on a treadmill, running harder every year just to maintain the economic security and social cohesion that were once taken for granted.
Meanwhile, at the top of our society, we find a political and economic elite that – having reached the highest rungs – has pulled up the ladder behind itself, denying others the chance even to climb.
From Wall Street to K Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, we find special interests increasingly exempted and insulated – by law - from the rigors of competition and the consequences of their own mistakes.
All of this points to what really is an inequality crisis in America today – a crisis not of unequal wealth or income… but unequal opportunity.
Progressives, from the president on down, say that inequality in America today is a failure of the free market… resulting from insufficient government intervention.
But if you look closely, you start to notice… the opposite is true.
Today, many of Lincoln’s “artificial weights” and obstacles blocking his “paths of laudable pursuit” are themselves dysfunctional government policies.
It is government policies, after all, that trap poor children in rotten schools; poor families in broken neighborhoods; that penalize single parents for getting raises, or getting married.
It is government policies that inflate costs and limit access to quality schools and health care; that hamstring badly needed innovation in higher education; and penalize parents’ investment in their children.
This opportunity crisis is absolutely real – sadly it is just as real as the liberals’ flawed, seductive, big-government proposals to create their version of opportunity.
It is not enough for us simply to oppose liberals’ ideas. We have to propose conservative ones.
True victory for values voters may be found a little ways down on that road less traveled, but it’s long past time for conservatives to take it. Our movement is at its best when we take on big challenges.
And the great challenge of our time is the challenge of the forgotten family: the honest, noble parents across the country trying to make ends meet in a society, economy, and democracy increasingly rigged by Washington against them and their children.
It is time for a new conservative reform agenda that levels the playing field and finally meets the challenges facing working families:
to give underprivileged families a fair chance to work their way into the middle class;
to give families struggling to stay in middle class their fair chance to make a good living and build a good life;
to make it easier for couples for start families… for entrepreneurs to start businesses… and volunteers to start civic and charitable organizations;
to help all Americans at every step along the path to success overcome the obstacles big government has put before them.
It is time for a new approach to taxes, to not only lower rates to spur economic opportunity, but to eliminate tax discrimination against parents and families. I am working on a bill designed to do just that.
It is time for a new approach to education, to break up the special-interest cartels that hold back our young children, and our young adults. Education is opportunity, and government has no business telling students where they can and can’t go to get it.
It is time for a new approach to transportation. New roads mean new neighborhoods, new communities, new jobs, new families, and new opportunities.
Yet today, infrastructure money states could be spending on those opportunities, Washington instead spends on bureaucratic waste and special-interest giveaways.
It is time to rethink a dysfunctional welfare system that holds poor families down. And to reform a corrupt corporate welfare system that props big businesses up.
We need to find new ways – conservative ways that rely on free enterprise and civil society -- to help young couples:
afford a home,
raise and educate their kids,
get good health care,
take care of their elderly parents,
and retire with security themselves.
Our movement has always identified with those Americans who through hard work and determination have climbed the ladder of success. And we always should.
But our ideals demand we identify even more with those Americans still on the bottom rungs, where the climbing is harder, dangerous, and lonely.
We need to stand up for those Americans no one else will:
for the unborn child in the womb;
for the poor student caught in the failing school;
for the reformed father languishing in prison and the fatherless son facing alone the dangers of the street;
for the single mom working two jobs but still ensnared in big-government poverty traps;
for the elderly and the disabled, dehumanized by bureaucracy;
and for the splintering neighborhoods that desperately need them all.
These families, these moms and dads and grandparents and kids: they’re waiting for us.
They know more government isn’t the answer. They know government only divides them.
But they also know that too often… our party has ignored them.
That has to change.
And it has to change today… right now… because every hour, every day, big government leaves more and more American families behind.
It is time for conservatives to remember those forgotten families. In word and deed, in our hearts and in our agenda.
It is time to remember that the most audacious entrepreneurs in America are not high-tech CEOs in Silicon Valley… they’re a young couple at a church back home, saying “I do.”
It is time to remember that the most important investments in our nation’s future are not issued on Wall Street… but are sleeping in their mothers’ arms at the maternity unit of your local hospital.
To be truly pro-growth and pro-opportunity, our agenda must be truly pro-family.
Not just on some issues, but all of them.
I believe if conservatives look anew at the challenges facing the family, we will quickly discover opportunities to meet - united and undaunted - the challenges facing our movement… our economy… and our nation.
Building a new conservative agenda of reform around these moms and dads and kids – remembering America’s values and especially America’s forgotten families – is the path to restoring the greatness of our nation.
And if – at long last – conservatives finally take that road less traveled, it will make all the difference.
Thank you for everything you do. Keep the faith. And may God bless you all.