Conservatives: Reset Your Course

Editor’s Note: Rep. Mike Pence (R.) represents the 6th District of Indiana in the U.S. House of Representatives. This article is adapted from the keynote address he delivered at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Jan. 22, 2004, in Arlington, Va.

Picture a ship at sea. A proud captain steps onto the sunlit deck as it plies the open seas of a simpler time. Its sails full and straining in the wind, its crew is tried and true, its hull, mast and keel are strong, but beneath the waves, almost imperceptibly, the rudder has veered off course and, in time, the captain and crew will face unexpected peril.

The conservative movement today is like that ship with its proud captain, strong, accomplished, but veering off course into the dangerous and uncharted waters of big government Republicanism.

But conservatives know the cause of our republic: to “establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Fundamental Standards

By these fundamental standards, conservatives can take considerable pride in the past three years, that the ship of conservative Republican government in Washington is strong. And our movement is strong.

In promoting national security, economic prosperity and the sanctity of human life, conservatives made measurable gains in 2003.

Under the leadership of President George W. Bush and a Republican Congress, we have provided for the common defense, the most fundamental object of all. Republicans in Congress and conservatives throughout the land have stood steadfastly behind our President, whose personal courage and bold leadership has made our families measurably safer. Because of conservatism, America is defending freedom at home and abroad.

Republican governance, in these respects, has been conservative governance. But despite these enormous achievements, there are troubling signs that the ship of conservative governance is off course.

While Ronald Reagan said famously, “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem,” many Republicans-even many who call themselves conservatives-see government increasingly as the solution to every social ill. And let us be clear on this point: This is a historic departure from the limited government traditions of our party and millions of its most ardent supporters.

This shift to faith in government is especially clear to me. Not long ago, as I watched the children’s animated movie Ice Age with my kids I realized-I am the frozen man. You remember the frozen man-born in a simpler time, slips into the snow and thaws out years later in a more sophisticated age.

I first ran for Congress in 1988. An entrenched Democratic majority controlled Congress and frustrated President Reagan at every turn. A band of heroic House conservatives were challenging Speaker Jim Wright (D.) and welfare state politics; a balanced federal budget was as much a fantasy as a Republican majority. But some of us believed. We believed we could reduce the size and scope of government and halt the slow march to socialism embodied in the welfare state politics of the left.

I lost my bid in 1988 and again in 1990. There’s a saying in politics: “When you’re out, you’re out!” I was out for 10 years.

When I was finally elected in 2000, it was like I had been frozen before the revolution and thawed after it was over. When I first ran, Republicans dreamed of eliminating the Department of Education and returning control of our schools to parents, communities and states. Ten years later, I was thawed out, took my oath of office, and they handed me a copy of H.R. 1. One-as in our Republican Congress’ number one priority.

It was the “No Child Left Behind Act”: The largest expansion of the Department of Education since President Carter created it. About 30 House conservatives fought against the bill, but we were soundly defeated by our own colleagues. Our Reaganite belief that education was a local function was labeled “far right” by Republicans, and the President signed the bill into law with a smiling Ted Kennedy at his side.

Conservatives were told to bear up, that this was the exception, not the rule. So, relieved to have that behind me, I anxiously awaited a new H.R. 1 for a new Congress, an H.R. 1 I could be proud of. I was handed the Medicare Prescription Drug Bill. The largest new entitlement since 1965!

To the frozen man it was obvious: Another Congress, another H.R.1, another example of the ship of our movement veering off course.

Actually this bill started out promising. The President asked for a very limited program, extending existing welfare benefits to seniors just above the poverty level where most of the one in four seniors without prescription drug coverage reside.

Many conservatives, me included, were prepared to support this limited benefit. I told the President we shouldn’t make seniors choose between food, rent and prescription drugs. We were a better country than that.

But instead of giving the President what he requested, Congress-the land of the $400 hammer-set sail to create the largest new entitlement since 1965, which places trillions in obligations on our children and grandchildren without giving any thought to how we were going to pay for it. House conservatives faced a difficult choice: Oppose the President we love, or support the expansion of the big government we hate.

Twenty-five rebels made a stand for limited government. When all the votes were counted, we were one rebel short, and the ship of conservative government veered further off course.

But I will always believe the stand we took mattered. Sometimes a small group can take a stand, be defeated and still make a difference. The Texas volunteers within the Alamo exacted such a horrific toll on the Army of Santa Anna that his aid, Col. Juan Almonte, privately noted, “One more such glorious victory and we are finished.” And so they were. The inspiration of the stand at the Alamo fueled the victory Sam Houston led just six weeks later.

One more such glorious victory and we are finished. One more big-government education bill. One more new entitlement. One more compromise of who we are as limited-government Republicans, and our majority could be finished.

The state of our movement is strong, on the advance, but veering off course from our commitment to limited government. The time has come for conservatives to retake the helm of this movement and renew our commitment to fiscal discipline and to what we know to be true about the nature of government: Conservatives know that government that governs least governs best. Conservatives know as government expands, freedom contracts. Conservatives know that government should never do for a man what he can and should do for himself. And conservatives know that we never expand the welfare state but without reducing the freedom of its recipients and all those condemned to pay its price in confiscated taxes.

Conservatives know that if you reject these principles of limited government and urge others to reject them, you can still be my ally. You can even be my friend. But you cannot call yourself a conservative.

I met President Reagan in the summer of 1988. I was a 29-year-old candidate for Congress and he was winding down a presidency that changed the world. After we exchanged pleasantries, I told him I was grateful for everything he had done for the country and everything he had done to inspire my generation of Americans to believe in high ideals. He seemed surprised, his cheeks appeared to redden with embarrassment and he said, “Well, Mike, that’s a very nice thing of you to say.”

Moments later he took a minute to respond to my and others’ accolades with characteristic humility and optimism saying: “Many of you have thanked me for what I did for America but I want you to know I don’t think I did anything for this country-the American people decided it was time to right the ship, and I was just the captain they put on the bridge when they did it.”

It’s time for conservative Americans to do what Reagan did. It’s time for conservative Americans to right the ship again: To celebrate our great Republican President and Republican Congress that are leading our nation’s progress in national security, economic prosperity and value of human life, but also to see her listing to port, in the direction of big government, and set her right again.

This is not a sign of disloyalty, but of true loyalty to principle. When a ship is approaching a rocky coast, the life of the ship and its crew depends on the navigator with his sextant to counsel the captain and crew to steer clear of the shoals and, if need be, to forcefully oppose the captain when the fate of the ship hangs in the balance. This is our cause. To stand with our captain as he leads us well. And to right the ship where she is adrift.

And this cause will prevail.