Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) made the following remarks to GOPAC dinner on November 16.
Thank you for this opportunity to talk about the future of our Party and our country.
The voters obviously wanted to get our attention last week. While I would have preferred a gentler reproach than the one they delivered, I’m not discouraged nor should any of us be. Democrats had a good election night. We did not. But no defeat is permanent. And parties, just like individuals, show their character in adversity. Now, is the occasion to show ours.
The election was not an affirmation of the other party’s program. Try as hard as I could, I couldn’t find much evidence that my Democratic friends were offering anything that resembled a coherent platform or principled leadership on the critical issues that confront us today.
Nor do I believe Americans rejected our values and governing philosophy. On the contrary, I think they rejected us because they felt we had come to value our incumbency over our principles, and partisanship, from both parties, was no longer a contest of ideas, but an ever cruder and uncivil brawl over the spoils of power.
I am convinced that a majority of Americans still consider themselves conservatives or right of center. They still prefer common sense conservatism to the alternative. They want their government to operate as their families operate, on a realistic budget, with an eye on the future that spurns self-indulgence in the short term for the sake of lasting prosperity, that respects hard work and individual initiative, and that shows no favoritism to one group of Americans over another. Americans had elected us to change government, and they rejected us because they believed government had changed us. We must spend the next two years reacquainting the public and ourselves with the reason we came to office in the first place: to serve a cause greater than our self-interest.
Common sense conservatives believe in a short list of self-evident truths: love of country; respect for our unique influence on history; a strong defense and strong alliances based on mutual respect and mutual responsibility; steadfast opposition to threats to our security and values that matches resources to ends wisely; and confident, reliable, consistent leadership to advance human rights, democracy, peace and security.
We believe every individual has something to contribute and deserves the opportunity to reach his or her God-given potential. We believe in increasing wealth and expanding opportunity; in low taxes; fiscal discipline, free trade and open markets. We believe in competition, rewarding hard work and risk takers and letting people keep the fruits of their labor.
We believe in work, faith, service, a culture of life, personal responsibility. We believe in the integrity and values of families, neighborhoods and communities. We believe in limited government in a federal system, individual and property rights, and finding solutions to public problems closest to the people.
We believe in the rule of law and equal justice under the law, victim’s rights and taxpayers’ rights, and judges who interpret the Constitution and don’t usurp, by legislating from the bench, the public’s right to elect representatives to write our laws.
Common sense conservatives believe that the government that governs least governs best; that government should do only those things individuals cannot do for themselves, and do them efficiently. Much rides on that principle: the integrity of the government, our prosperity; and every American’s self-respect, which depends, as it always has, on one’s own decisions and actions, and cannot be provided as another government benefit.
Stand up for these values. Argue our principles for our country’s sake and not just ours. We are the party of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan. Take on the big problems. Don’t hide from hard challenges. Act on principle. Show Americans there are things that matter more to us than our incumbency. Do the right thing, and the politics will take care of itself.
Hypocrisy, my friends, is the most obvious of political sins. And the people will punish it. We were elected to reduce the size of government and enlarge the sphere of free and private initiative. Then we lavished money, in a time of war, on thousands of projects of dubious, if any, public value. We responded to a problem facing some Americans by providing every retired American with a prescription drug benefit, and adding another trillion dollars to a bankrupt entitlement. We increased the size of government in the false hope that we could bribe the public into keeping us in office. And the people punished us. We lost our principles and our majority. And there is no way to recover our majority without recovering our principles first.
In 1987, Ronald Reagan vetoed a highway bill because it because it had 152 earmarks. Last year, a Republican Congress passed a highway bill with 6,371 special projects costing the taxpayers twenty-four billion dollars. Those and other earmarks passed by a Republican Congress included fifty million for an indoor rainforest, $500,000 for a teapot museum; $350,000 for an Inner Harmony Foundation and Wellness Center; and 223 million for a bridge to nowhere. I didn’t see those projects in the fine print of the Contract with America, and neither did the voters.
A century ago, Teddy Roosevelt took on the special interests. Let the party of Teddy Roosevelt take the lead in cleaning up Washington today. Let’s start with pork barrel spending and corporate welfare; eliminate all earmarks; pass the line item veto; employ honest budget accounting; and end emergency spending bills for non emergencies as a way around budget limits. Let’s ban all gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers, and keep lobbyists off the floors of the House and Senate.
We have more significant priorities ahead of us than finding new ways to spend money unwisely. When Social Security was established, forty-one workers supported a single retiree; today it’s three. Health care costs add more to the cost of a new car manufactured in the U.S. than steel. By 2045, spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, along with interest on the national debt, will consume 84 cents out of every federal dollar.
We can leave these difficult problems to our unlucky successors, after they’ve grown worse, and harder to fix. Or we can bring all parties to the table, and hammer out a principled solution that makes the difficult choices necessary to support the needs of retirees, promote high quality health care at lower costs, protect the future security of workers; and restores the bonds of trust between the generations.
We can do the same on the issue of immigration. I understand the magnitude of the problem. We can do all that is possible to defend our borders from illegal immigration, and affirm the rule of law. When we have made these improvements, we must still recognize that job opportunities here and poverty elsewhere in the world will still attract immigrants desperate to improve their lives, and who will use increasingly desperate measures to do so. We can devise a rational and fair process, which protects our security and affirms America’s promise as a land of opportunity.
My friends, change is coming at Americans faster today than ever before. Fifty years ago, we produced and sold almost entirely for our domestic market. Today, we compete in a global marketplace against 1.3 billion Chinese and 1.1 billion Indians.
Over the last two decades, because we have expanded free trade and open markets, the number of people living in extreme poverty dropped by more than 700 million in China and 200 million in India. As their economies grow, developing nations offer not just competition – but vast new consumer markets for American goods and services. And raising hundreds of millions of people from poverty is the best shield against the attraction of extremism.
Thanks, in part, to Republican economic policies, America still has the most productive, flexible and energetic free economy in the world.
But for many Americans – behind the positive macro-economic statistics – once reliable bedrocks like pensions, health care plans and even middle class jobs no longer feel secure. And with science and technology the key to high wage jobs, many parents fear their children won’t have the same opportunities they had.
In the global economy what you learn is what you earn. But today, half of Hispanics and half of African Americans entering high school will never graduate. By the 12th grade, U.S. students in math and science score near the bottom of all industrialized nations. As Bill Gates said, “This isn’t an accident or flaw in the system. It is the system.”
We need to shake up failed school bureaucracies with competition, empower parents with choice, remove barriers to qualified instructors, attract and reward superior teachers, and have a fair, but sure process to weed out incompetents.
When Ronald Reagan took office, a blackberry was something you used to make jam; today it is a vital link in a wireless communication network that spans the globe. The broadband revolution is transforming every facet of communications from the internet to entertainment to telephone service to the delivery of health care services to supply chain management. Yet over the last decade, America has dropped from 2nd in the world to 19th in broadband development and connectivity. In the real world of global competition if we don’t reverse those trends, we will risk our prosperity and leave many Americans in rural areas far behind the rest of us.
“The dogmas of the quiet past,” Abraham Lincoln said, “are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new, we must think anew. We must disenthrall ourselves.” Across the generations, those words still ring true.
To keep our nation prosperous, strong and growing we have to rethink, reform and reinvent: the way we educate our children; train our workers; deliver health care services; support retirees; fuel our transportation network; stimulate research and development; and harness new technologies. Let that challenge be the new Republican calling. Let’s invite a genuine contest of ideas within our party and with the other party. For conservatism, as Ronald Reagan told us “is not a narrow ideology.”
When I drive home at night, I pass people waiting at a bus stop, and imagine their lives. A woman of Hispanic heritage, maybe thirty five, with three kids, is waiting for a bus on a cold street in the middle of the night so she can start her job. While you and I are home relaxing with our families over dinner, she and thousands like her are working late into the night in the offices we left, emptying waste baskets, cleaning up kitchens, scrubbing bathroom floors. She – like first generation Americans before her – is sacrificing so her children can climb the ladder of American opportunity.
When we debate simplifying the tax code – which we must do — I want us to remember that admirable woman, and ask ourselves have we done all we can to remove obstacles for her and millions like her to climb the next rung on the ladder.
I want us to remember the worker in Michigan, in his fifties, who served a tour in Vietnam, married, four kids, two in college, who worked over thirty years at an auto parts plant, and never took a day of sick leave. Last year his plant downsized and his job was eliminated, and he felt as if a trap door had opened beneath him and he and his family had fallen through it.
America is the greatest trading nation in the world. Competition keeps us strong, and most Americans know that building a moat around America is a formula for stagnation. I am proud of our party’s leadership on free trade while the Democrats embrace the siren song of protectionism. But we are not a nation of Social Darwinists, who believe only in the survival of the fittest. Work in America is more than a paycheck; it a source of pride, self-reliance and identity.
I want our party to say to that worker in Michigan, and thousands like him: when you work hard; play by the rules, serve your country and community; and the burden of change arrives suddenly on your doorstep, you and your family are not just forgotten or disposable.
Our most important obligation, of course, is to protect Americans from the threat posed by violent extremists who despise us, our values and modernity itself. They are moral monsters, but they are also a disciplined, dedicated movement driven by an apocalyptic religious zeal, which celebrates martyrdom and murder, has access to science, technology and mass communications, and is determined to acquire and use against us and our allies weapons of mass destruction. The institutions that sustained us throughout the Cold War and the doctrine of deterrence we relied on are no longer adequate to protect us in a struggle where suicide bombers might obtain the world’s most terrifying weapons.
The war against terrorism is part of a larger struggle around the globe between the forces of integration and disintegration, between builders and destroyers, between modernizers and those who would shackle humanity, especially women, in a feudal theocracy. The question facing us is not whether America will play a large and shaping role in that struggle, but whether we will play it well or badly. We cannot afford to take a holiday from history.
To defend ourselves we must do everything better and smarter than we did before. We must rethink, renew and rebuild the structure and mission of our military; the capabilities of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies; the purposes of our alliances, the reach and scope of our diplomacy, and the capacities of all branches of government to defend us against the peril we now face. We need to marshal all elements of American power: our military, economy, investment, trade and technology. We need to strengthen our alliances, and build support in other nations, which must, whether they believe it or not, confront the same threat to their way of life that we do. And we must marshal the power of our ideals.
Some on both the Left and Right argue that our advocacy of democratic values in Iraq and elsewhere is reckless and vain; that freedom only works for wealthy nations and Western cultures. But a world where our political and economic values had a realistic chance at becoming a global creed was the principal object of our foreign policy in the last century. We conservatives were its most effective advocates, and it must remain our principal object today. We understood that our security interests and the global advance of our ideals are inextricably linked, and we surely didn’t accept the notion that freedom was the product of our power and wealth. Our wealth and power are the product of our freedom.
We must appreciate the security implications of every policy debate. When we debate energy legislation, for instance, we must recognize that the oil tankers stretching from the Persian Gulf to our ports also channel petrodollars to oil dictatorships — dollars used to buy centrifuges to enrich uranium and build ballistic missiles; to finance Hamas, Hezbollah and al Qaeda; and to fund the madrassas that train the next generation of terrorists.
Leading our allies in an international effort to reduce our mutual dependence on oil, employing the services of the brightest, most creative and accomplished scientists, business leaders, military and government officials, could do as much to defeat the terrorists as any other policy decision we make, and would make American businesses and workers the leaders in developing new technologies. And, obviously, increased and accelerated development of nuclear energy is an important part of the solution.
We must also prepare, across all levels of government, far better than we have done, to respond quickly and effectively to another terrorist attack or natural calamity. I am not an advocate of big government, and the private sector has an important role to play in homeland security. But when Americans confront a catastrophe, either natural or man-made, their government, across jurisdictions, should be organized and ready to deliver bottled drinking water to dehydrated babies and rescue the aged and infirm trapped in a hospital with no electricity.
Now, I would like to speak briefly about the issue that is uppermost on the minds of Americans. I’ll make another trip to Iraq in the coming weeks, and will speak more extensively on the subject when I return. But, let me make a few observations here.
Good and patriotic Americans disagree about the wisdom of the original decision to remove Saddam Hussein. I supported it and still do. And clearly the country is divided on the question of how we proceed from here. But I believe all Americans agree on this: to treat this war as a partisan issue for the advantage of either party would dishonor the sacrifices of the young men and women who have fought in it so bravely.
We have made a great many mistakes in this war, and history will hold us to account for them just as the voters did last week. The situation in Iraq is dire. But I believe victory is still attainable. And I am certain that our defeat there would be a catastrophe, and not only for the United States. But we will not succeed if we no longer have the will to win.
Americans are tired of Iraq because they are not convinced we can still win there without an intolerable loss of additional lives and resources. I understand that. But in no other time are we more morally obliged to speak the truth to our country, as we best see it, than in a time of war. So, let me say this, without additional combat forces we will not win this war. We can, perhaps, attempt to mitigate somewhat the terrible consequences of our defeat, but even that is an uncertain prospect. We don’t have adequate forces in Iraq to clear and hold insurgent strongholds; to provide security for rebuilding local institutions and economies; to arrest sectarian violence in Baghdad and disarm Sunni and Shia militias; to train the Iraqi Army, and to embed American personnel in weak, and often corrupt Iraqi police units. We need to do all these things if we are to succeed. And we will need more troops to do them.
They will not be easy to find. The day after 9/11/, we should have begun to increase significantly the size of the Army and Marine Corps. But we did not. So we must turn again to those Americans and their families who have already sacrificed so much in this cause. That is a very hard thing to do. But if we intend to win, then we must.
It is not fair or easy to look a soldier in the eye and tell him he must shoulder a rifle again and risk his life in a third tour in Iraq. Many of them will not want to. They feel have already suffered far more than the rest of us to win this war. Their families will be even more upset. And they will be right. It is a hard thing to ask of them. But ask it we must – if, and I emphasize if, we have the will to win. As troubling as it is, I can ask a young Marine to go back to Iraq. And he will go, not happily perhaps, but he will go because he and his comrades are the first patriots among us, and he will fight his hardest there for his country to prevail. Of that, I have no doubt. But I can only ask him if I share his commitment to victory.
What I cannot do is ask him to return to Iraq, to risk life and limb, so that we might delay our defeat for a few months or a year. That is more to ask than patriotism requires. It would not be in the interest of the country, and it surely would be an intolerable sacrifice for so poor an accomplishment. It would be immoral, and I could not do it.
My friends, before I leave, let me again say that though we suffered a tough defeat last week, we will recover if we learn our lesson well and once again offer Americans enlightened, effective and principled leadership. In 1977, after Republicans lost the presidency and Democrats held large majorities in Congress, Ronald Reagan offered precisely that kind of leadership, and led us to victory in just three years time. We can do it again if we lead and inspire as he did.
That was not my first experience with President Reagan’s wisdom. When I was their involuntary guest, the North Vietnamese went to great lengths to restrict news from home to the statements and activities of prominent opponents of the war. They wanted us to believe that our country had forgotten us. They never mentioned Ronald Reagan to us, or played his speeches over the camp loudspeakers. No matter. We knew about him. New additions to our ranks told us how Governor and Mrs. Reagan were committed to our liberation and our cause. They were among the few prominent Americans who did not subscribe to the then fashionable notion that America and the West had entered our inevitable decline.
We came home to a country that had lost a war and the best sense of itself; a country beset by serious social and economic problems. Assassinations, riots, scandals, contempt for political, religious and educational institutions, gave the appearance that we had become a dysfunctional society. Patriotism was sneered at. The military scorned. And the world anticipated the collapse of our global influence. The great, robust democracy that had given its name to the century appeared exhausted.
Ronald Reagan believed differently. He possessed an unshakeable faith in America’s spirit that proved more durable than the prevailing political sentiments of the time, and he became President to prove it. His confidence was a tonic to men who had come home eager to put the war behind us and for our country to do likewise. His was a faith that shouted to tyrants, “tear down this wall.” When walls were all I had for a world, his faith in our country gave me hope in a desolate place.
It was the faith he shared with my friend, Mike Christian.
Fellow Americans, we can achieve whatever task we set for our country, and whatever task we set for our party, as long as we remember why we came to Washington in the first place. We came to honor Ronald Reagan’s and Mike Christian’s faith in America, the greatest nation and greatest force for good on earth. If we remember that then all will be well for our party and our country.
Thank you and God bless you.
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