How Did the GOP Lose Its Way?

Heritage Foundation President Edwin J. Feulner is concerned about the American political system and the significant decline in voter participation. But how do you re-engage citizens who have lost interest in government or dislike politicians?

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Feulner told HUMAN EVENTS he thinks he’s found the solution. In his new book, Getting America Right: The True Conservative Values Our Nation Needs Today, he and Chairman Doug Wilson outline a six-point plan for citizens to take back control of their government.

The book strikes a populist tone, and Feulner said he hopes those who read it will download a discussion guide he has created and posted on the book’s website,

“What we tried to do,” Feulner said, “is give conservatives, in whatever party, a handbook they can use, practically speaking, for asking the right kind of questions, whether the candidate is on the campaign trail or whether the candidate has just been elected and is a new or returning congressman or senator.”

Yesterday I spoke with Feulner about the book, conservative principles and Republican Party politics. Our interview is printed below.

Republicans have had control of the White House and Congress for five years, yet you’re writing a book about how to get America back on course. What went wrong?

We strayed from both the principles of Ronald Reagan of just 25 years ago and from the vision of our Founding Fathers. Too many people who were elected to office forgot why they came to Washington, and they have gone astray. That’s why when Doug Wilson and I conceptualized this book, we said, for conservatives this should be the best of times, we are in charge.

So why are things so off course? From there, we got into the idea of what a citizen outside the Washington beltway can do to make things better. We are both optimistic, principled conservatives who believe that we can make a difference. We go back to Abraham Lincoln, and we talk about power of the people. That’s what we believe in, and how do we make it better.

How do you think that will play in an election year when Republicans are admittedly just trying to break even in terms of having control of the Senate and House? Is your book meant to inspire the base to work harder for the Republican Party and turn out to elect conservatives?

What we say here at Heritage is that a lot of our friends in the conservative movement become absorbed with electoral politics. What we’re involved with here is policy politics—what happens to the congressman or the senator after they get to Washington. And that’s basically what we wrote the book for: How do people outside the beltway actually have an impact on policy politics. That’s why I think it’s important that this book not necessarily be related to the ’06 election, but rather be related to what’s going on in the meantime.

There have been copies of the book’s galley floating around Washington for the last couple of months, and that’s why we were so gratified when Josh Bolten and the President came out in favor of the line-item veto, with a specific package that looks like it will pass constitutional muster. That’s why we’re so gratified when Mike Pence and the Republican Study Committee came out with their alternative budget. The headline on their fact sheet is “Contract With America—Renewed.” That’s what we want people to start doing here.

We think that besides stating the basic principles, we also talk about the six questions people should ask about policy proposals. And that’s what we want people to do. As candidates are out campaigning around the country, ask them about specific issues and ask if it really meets the criteria of promoting self-reliance, being responsible, making us more prosperous, etc.

Without giving away too much of the book, what can a reader of HUMAN EVENTS do immediately to make a difference?

The first thing they ought to do is not only get the book, but also look at our website,, because on there is a discussion guide for the book, which would enable a group of people to sit around a table with a cup of coffee and a brownie or an adult beverage, as one guy said to me, and ask each other: Is it the government’s business to fund a rainforest in Iowa? Or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland?

Does it promote self-reliance? As we point out in the book, the Heritage Index of Dependency has, since Ronald Reagan was inaugurated just 25 years ago, seen dependency on the federal government go up 128% for the four basics of health, food, shelter and education.

Is it responsible that we have a line in the federal budget called Unreconciled Transactions Affecting the Change in Net Position? When you look at what that is, there’s $24.5 billion—that’s billion with a ‘B’—that the federal government cannot account for. They know they spent it, but they don’t know who they spent it on, where it went, what program it went toward, how much of it was stolen—whatever. That’s $24.5 billion. That can’t be considered responsible.

If readers look at our website, they will see the questions, and when they read the book, they will get a flavor of what’s wrong. They then can propose changes that we recommend, and some others that I’m sure will flow from it, such as requiring every appropriations bill be posted online for at least 24 hours, including a direct connection between every earmark and who sponsored it. That way we’ll know that it was Sen. Ted Stevens who was in charge of the Bridge to Nowhere. Or whoever it was for the rainforest in Iowa.

There are, in fact, things that ought to happen in terms of controlling immigration. We have a whole section answering the questions: Does it unify us? Does it bring us together—E Pluribus Unum—instead of separating us?

What we tried to do is give conservatives, in whatever party, a handbook they can use, practically speaking, for asking the right kind of questions, whether the candidate is on the campaign trail or whether the candidate has just been elected and is a new or returning congressman or senator.

It seems that with some of the examples in the book and those you just gave, your book could appeal a cross-section of people—not necessarily just conservatives, but all Americans who are concerned about what the government is doing?

We hope so. We hope liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans alike will use this as a springboard for discussion. Let’s get some real, old-fashioned debate going where we aren’t just talking in 10-second sound bites. We should develop an argument, and say, yes, we really do need to have more funding for public schools. But does that mean more funds should come from the federal government, with the control involved? Does that mean it’s the right way to go? Let’s debate these kinds of questions and have some real civic involvement.

One of the things that concerns me and concerns Doug very much is that we’re down to less than 50% participation in federal voting. This is not the way our system has been developed. It was developed for everyone to take part, and that’s why we talk about “we the people.”

Your book mentions some politicians who are selling out. Who stands out in your mind who voters should be keeping an eye out for?

I think there are enough big pork-barrel spenders, and I know from reading HUMAN EVENTS who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. But I’d rather reflect on some of the good guys. When you look at the Mike Pences and the Jeb Hensarlings and the Jeff Flakes, and in the Senate, Jon Kyl and Tom Coburn and Rick Santorum, you’ve got a lot bench strength from conservatives who are principled—who will stand up for what’s right and will vote the right way. I’d much rather talk about them and about how the country can get back to its roots and do the right sort of thing instead of veering away.

On that note about these conservative stars whom we feature quite often in HUMAN EVENTS, do you think there will be a time when someone like a Mike Pence in the House or a Tom Coburn in the Senate will be able to hold a leadership position? Or is it impossible for a deeply rooted conservative to hold a leadership position because they would have to compromise.

No. I certainly think they can work their way up the leadership ladder. The Senate’s a strange place, and I don’t pretend to understand what puts someone in line for leadership positions. But the other side of that is that an individual in the Senate can really have an outside advantage. For example, with the President’s line-item veto, a single senator can object if something is not included in the right package. So all you need is one Tom Coburn to have an influence.

When you’re talking about the House, you have to work your way up. So you end up with a good, strong committed conservative like Chris Cox, who was chairman of the Policy Committee. And poor Chris gets frustrated, and here’s a better job outside the Congress, and I’m going to go for that. [Cox is now serving as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.] There are other Chris Coxes coming along, too. For a Mike Pence or a John Shadegg to step up is not only a possibility, but I think it’s going to happen increasingly.

The one issue Democrats are trying to seize on this year is corruption. How do you think that’s playing among conservatives—the voters who will be the base for Republican candidates?

I think that most conservatives see it as a problem of too much government and too much money involved in government. People are going to be tempted. We are all fallen angles. And because of that, we are tempted. That’s ever going to be the case, and the more government and the more power and the more money there is in Washington, the more likely it is to happen on both sides.

The notion that part of our base—even a small part—says that it’s a plague and I’m going to sit it out could have a dramatic impact. Again, democracy is not a spectator sport. We should all be involved in it. And when we get down to such low levels of voter participation as we do now, that concerns me. We want our base to be energized, we want them to get out there and raise these kinds of questions with the individual representatives they have.

You’re known in Washington as someone who is always looking ahead, and you’ve done tremendous things with the Internet, whether it was your starting or putting all the Heritage resources on the web. Do you think the Internet, specifically blogs and message boards, will have a positive impact on democracy and encourage more voter participation?

Absolutely, and I think we can make a real appeal to our own base. What happened last time around in the ’04 election with Dan Rather, every conservative ought to take pride in that case. But they also ought to take heart that the technology is neutral, but that doesn’t mean we give the technology up to George Soros, and the rest of these crazy, loony lefties. Rather, we need to be part of that action—making sure our blogs are getting the right information out, that we are tracking what the other side is doing and we are really watching. Therefore, when it comes to legislation, we know who is sponsoring which pork measure.

When the American people know what’s in a piece of legislation, the outrage can be felt, the $40 billion can be cut (as happened last year when one of our leaders said there was no fat left in the budget). There’s so much the people can do when they have the information. And I think the neutral technology can really work in our direction because in the past it’s all been held back by the mainstream media.

And finally, do you think Republicans will be the majority party in Congress in January?

We hope that our book will have an impact in terms of getting all Americans, regardless of party, to discuss the issues with the candidates for office this fall. We think if they ask the right questions, it will, by nature, be inclined to help conservatives because it reminds people what America is all about. Fundamentally, we are a conservative country that says the federal government should only do certain things, and if other things have to be done by government, it shouldn’t be done at a federal level. In that regard, we hope the book will have a positive impact.