Ideas Will Drive Conservatives' Revival

If Republicans, and more importantly, conservatives who want to preserve our culture and unleash the power of the free enterprise system, wish to return to power in Washington, then it is critical that ideas sustain public policy.

By focusing on just a couple of these ideas, conservatives will recognize how we lost our way by failing to turn to them, how Democrats have won victories by claiming them and how we can return to power by applying our ideas to the challenges before us.

Fiscal Responsibility

First, we must live by the conviction that public measures ought to be judged by their prudence; we ought to demand fiscal responsibility and deny the short-term benefits of political advantage or popularity.

In his 1964 nomination speech, Sen. Barry Goldwater declared:

We have lost the brisk pace of diversity and the genius of individual creativity. We are plodding along at a pace set by centralized planning, red tape, rules without responsibility, and regimentation without recourse.

Rather than useful jobs in our country, our people have been offered bureaucratic “make work”; rather than moral leadership, they have been given bread and circuses. They have been given spectacles, and, yes, they’ve even been given scandals.

Years later, the late, great Milton Friedman, whose death we mourn, put the same sentiment in appropriate terms: “Given our monstrous, overgrown government structure, any three letters chosen at random would probably designate an agency or part of a department that could be profitably abolished.”

How easily those words can be applied to our situation today. Unfortunately, they sound like a distant echo of what Republicans once claimed as their birthright: prudence in government.

A Wall Street Journal editorial recently pointed out that in 1994 Republicans decried 1,500 earmarks as “a fiscal disgrace.” In the last year, a Republican controlled Congress approved 16,000 earmarks to the tune of $50 billion.

Not as colorful, but even more concerning, is the looming damage unchecked entitlement programs will exert on the federal budget.

The silver lining for conservatives is that the American public agrees that prudence in government matters. As that same editorial pointed out, 59% of Americans favor fewer government services and lower taxes. Unfortunately, only 20% of those polled agreed that Republicans are trustworthy when it comes to keeping government spending under control. If you want a telling statement as to why we lost the 2006 election cycle, listen to this:

According to a recent poll by the Club for Growth, 66% of respondents agreed with the following statement: “The Republican Party used to be the party of economic growth, fiscal discipline, and limited government, but in recent years, too many Republicans in Washington have become just like the big spenders that they used to oppose.”

The American people listened to us as we debated government’s duty to act responsibly, and just when we learned that they agreed with us, we turned and demonstrated that the real goal of some was not a more limited government, but a more powerful one.

Too many people elected as conservatives became convinced that big-government programs guided by conservative ideas were good for the country. They were wrong. Big government conservatism is a contradiction in terms and should have no place in the Republican Party.

It is time that Republicans return to their roots and remind the American people that the party of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and the Contract with America is the only party that can truly govern responsibly.

Moral Order

We must also recommit ourselves to the common belief in an enduring moral order. In stark contrast to the liberal obsession with cultural relativism stands the conservative belief that all of humanity is bound together by a moral fabric that transcends any generation’s impulses.

This belief in enduring moral order served as the basis for Ronald Reagan’s assertion that we were at war with “an evil empire.” The left’s soft, indeed almost sympathetic, reaction to the communist threat illustrated the extent to which relativism had infected the liberal imagination, but in recent years too many Republicans have treated policies that relate to our basic values as if they were merely designed to rally or appease a particular group of voters rather than a sincere and earnest effort to defend an enduring moral order.

Defending traditional marriage, for instance, must be more than an election year rallying cry—it must be a clear and consistent battle against those who would undermine what centuries have recognized as the fundamental institution of civilization: the family. A lack of progress on an issue such as this undermines our credibility with Americans who are concerned that the moral fabric of our nation is unraveling. A lack of progress allows Democrats to claim our positions as their own!

Increasingly, Democrat candidates are claiming an attachment to enduring moral order, making it more difficult for Republicans to connect with Americans who are concerned about the unraveling of our cultural fabric. Heath Shuler, for instance, won his new congressional seat by claiming to be a conservative, evangelical Christian who opposes gay-marriage and abortion and who believes that the Bible should instruct public policy.

Similarly, Jim Webb’s references to the New Left as a collection of cultural Marxists, and his reputation for having abandoned the Reagan administration on the basis that it was “too soft” militarily, made it difficult for opponents to portray him as a child of the New Left, as, for instance, was possible with John Kerry in 2004.

We should, of course, remind everyone that Mr. Shuler will support a Democrat agenda that works against all of those things he claimed to support, and that Jim Webb has helped elevate John Kerry’s stature and authority.

The silver lining for conservatives in this regard is that the general public has made it clear that it rejects moral relativism. The unfortunate truth is that the general public also made it clear that the Republican Party is no longer offering a clear path of progress on important issues relating to our basic values.

Finding Our Way Back

The American people expect us to lead effectively, and to lead by putting ideas into practice. Conservatism can offer a bold agenda, one that can bring a fresh list of reforms at a time when those reforms are most needed.

We were very disappointed to see Sen. Jim Talent lose his re-election bid, but the recent state election results in Missouri offer a contrast to the federal results and illustrate just how a conservative agenda was able to hold back the tide during a tough year for Republicans.

I am the first Republican governor in 80 years with a Republican House and a Republican Senate, but in 2006 we experienced only small losses in our General Assembly, and Republicans still command large majorities in both houses. In a difficult year nationally, we even beat incumbent Democrats. And some of our policies explain why.

  • When we ran for office we told Missourians that government needs to be smaller and more accountable.
  • In just three decades, the size of Missouri’s government grew from $1.4 billion to $19.4 billion. In 1971, there were a little over 40,000 state workers. By 2004 there were more than 64,000.
  • But in Missouri we committed to change and did what governments seldom do: we began to cut cost. In many departments we did not just reduce the rate of growth, we reduced actual costs. We have created a culture where leaders and managers know that they will be rewarded for cutting their budget and reducing their size.
  • We actually have reduced the number of state employees. The fiscal 2007 recommended full-time employee total is under 60,000 for the first time in nearly a decade and I am committed to not going above that number during my service as governor.

We also began to tackle unsustainable growth in our social welfare system. Previous administrations judged their success by how quickly they could expand the rolls. Our largest program, Medicaid, was providing healthcare for 20% of our population.

In fiscal 2000, Missouri’s Medicaid budget was $3.5 billion. Within six fiscal years, the program nearly doubled, costing more than $6 billion and was on the verge of bankrupting the state. It was inhibiting our ability to meet many of our other obligations.

We made the difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions that were necessary to guarantee the state’s and the Medicaid program’s financial solvency. We made difficult decisions about eligibility. We began requiring accountability in the system and we have already saved $139 million just by verifying on an annual basis the eligibility of those in the program and emphasizing the reduction of fraud and waste.

The passage of an aggressive tort reform bill was also foundational to our efforts to move towards affordable, accessible healthcare for all Missourians. By now you have probably heard that corporations are spending more on tort liability than research and development. Similar legislation is essential at the national level if the United States is to remain competitive in the global economy.

In Missouri, in addition to righting our fiscal ship, we have taken tremendous steps to improve our business and jobs climate. In 2005, we reformed our worker’s compensation system and passed landmark litigation reform. It may be the best bill in the country and includes significant language to stop venue shopping, caps non-economic and punitive damages, and contains very meaningful reform of our joint and several liability system. Because of this reform we have moved Missouri from a deficit that represented 5% of our budget to a small but real surplus.

But we need to do more, both at the state and federal levels.

  • We must get control of federal spending and return to fiscal discipline.
  • Congress needs to give the President line-item veto power.
  • It should enact real earmark reform.
  • Washington has to take on the difficult challenge of the looming entitlement outlays that could bankrupt future generations.
  • Finally, our tax code is broken. The amount of time Americans spend doing their taxes is greater than the combined working hours of all those who make cars, computers, airplanes and steel in this country. Tax attorneys and CPAs could be adding more value to the economy, and Americans could be spending more of their own money, if our tax code were simpler and fairer.

Ripe for Reform

These are just a few areas that are ripe for reform at the federal level and in many states. Carrying out this type of reform can be very challenging, but the American people have made it clear that they want their nation governed by conservative principles and we owe it to them to do exactly that.

Clearly there are obstacles, but as Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to his daughter Martha, “It is a part of the American character to consider nothing as desperate; to surmount every difficulty by resolution and contrivance.” Today we should consider nothing as desperate and work to surmount our own difficulties by resolution.