The following remarks were delivered by Sen. Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.) on March 1, 2007 at the opening of the 34th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. DeMint has made a name for himself in recent months for his willingness to fight for fiscal conservatism on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Thank you, Pat. During my time in the House of Representatives, there was no greater champion of fiscal responsibility and moral values than Pat Toomey. And what you are doing now with the Club for Growth by helping to elect TRUE conservatives to public office, is equally important.
Thank you also to David Keene. I am excited for the three days ahead of us. There has never been a time in our history when CPAC was more necessary, and looking at the list of speakers you have lined up to inspire us, it looks as though we are in for a treat.
Thank all of you for your warm welcome.
I have felt a little lonely in the Senate of late. I think I’m the only one not running for President. So I would like to take this opportunity to make a major announcement about my political future and the future of our country.
A previous CPAC speaker once began his address as follows:
“Since our last meeting we have been through a disastrous election. It is easy for us to be discouraged, as pundits hail that election as a repudiation of our philosophy and even as a mandate of some kind … Bitter as it is to accept the results of the November election, we should have reason for some optimism…. For many years now we have preached ‘the gospel,’ in opposition to the philosophy of so-called liberalism which was, in truth, a call to collectivism. Now, it is possible we have been persuasive to a greater degree than we had ever realized. Few, if any, Democratic Party candidates in the last election ran as liberals… Bureaucracy was assailed and fiscal responsibility hailed … But let’s not be so naïve as to think we are witnessing a mass conversion to the principles of conservatism. Once sworn into office, the victors reverted to type … Still, we must not forget that they molded their campaigning to fit what even they recognized was the mood of the majority.”
These words were spoken at this conference on March 1, 1975 by Ronald Reagan.
Just like 2006, 1974 was a tough electoral year for conservatives. But sometimes it takes dire circumstances to inspire action. That same year, a small group of conservative Senators decided to band together and form the Senate Steering Committee. For the past 32 years, the Steering Committee has been dedicated to conservative action in the Senate. This year, I accepted the Chairmanship of the Committee. I pledge to you that I will do my best to live up to the great traditions of past Chairmen like Jeff Sessions, Jon Kyl, Phil Gramm, and of course one of my personal heroes, that great Senator from North Carolina, Jesse Helms.
I am here today to talk about the cause we believe in … the conservative mission … and the vision we have for America.
In my previous life, working as a marketing and strategic planner, I was frequently asked to deal with companies that had no unifying vision for the future. To make a point, I would often divide the management team into small groups and give a jigsaw puzzle to each group. I would give half the groups puzzles with the right box tops, and half with the wrong box tops. You can imagine the frustration of trying to put together a puzzle with a box top that shows the wrong picture of what the puzzle should look like. The pieces don’t fit the picture. The result was always arguing, disillusionment, and a breakdown of teamwork. If any of the participants doubted the importance of a shared, unifying vision; that exercise eliminated all doubts.
In my time in Congress, I have seen the Republican Party, and many times our conservative movement, working with the wrong box top. We became fixated on building a “lasting majority,” when we should have been building a better America. We were too focused on the little pieces of legislation that we hoped would buy new voters while we abandoned our cause.
Conservatives need a unifying vision. We often talk of ideology and policies; but Ronald Reagan was considered the great communicator because he didn’t. When Reagan spoke to the American people, he talked optimistically about a better future by describing the strength and goodness of America and her people. He inspired and motivated by convincing us that America was great and good and getting better everyday. That is a compelling box top.
Reagan didn’t just talk about a strong military; he talked about the promise of peace through strength. In the same speech I referenced earlier, Reagan talked about the type of foreign policy leadership conservatives must bring to the table. He said, “Can we live with ourselves if we, as a nation, betray our friends and ignore our pledged word?”
The answer today is the same as it was three decades ago. No, we must lead in the world with moral clarity, and our word must be golden. When we say we are going to commit to a mission, we must finish it.
Sadly, many of my colleagues in Congress are not willing to keep our word and finish our mission. As the Democrats dither about with non-binding resolutions, our troops on the ground are carrying out the President’s surge orders and seeing some initial successes.
America has been given much as a nation; we must expect much more of ourselves. We must not follow the political winds. We must lead. The world needs a strong America that leads.
But now, with no Reagan to lead us, it is left to a new generation of conservative leaders to step up to the plate and point the way. We must paint a picture that shows voters where we want to lead America and what it will look like when we get there. But first, we need to remind ourselves of our foundational purpose and the values that guide us.
Many call themselves conservatives. I see them everyday in Congress. They vote for some new spending program and then sheepishly tell me, “I’m a conservative, but …” There are too many “conservative, buts.”
Even my predecessor Fritz Hollings, one of the biggest spenders in Washington, called himself a conservative. I can still hear him back in South Carolina saying, “those boys in Washington are busting the budget.” Talking the conservative talk is fashionable, but walking the walk is not.
Our mission is to preserve and promote those things that have proven to work for the betterment of individuals and our nation. Conservatism is supported by many core values, but there are three values in particular that we should constantly be working towards: individualism, capitalism, and volunteerism.
The first is the preeminence of the individual: for freedom to work, people must have the capabilities to succeed in a free society. And more than just being capable, individuals need to have good character. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”
This is the kind of individual that will flourish in a society with free markets. Capitalism is the purest form of democracy because consumers can make their own decisions. As the late Milton Friedman said, “The free market is the only mechanism that has been discovered for achieving participatory democracy.” But individualism and capitalism alone are not enough.
The third core value of conservatism is the important role of good citizenship and volunteerism. At this moment, all across America, millions of citizens are meeting on volunteer boards, United Way committees, church groups, Boy Scout troops, arts councils, community groups, business associations, and countless other groups that work to make America a better place. Volunteers and voluntary associations are the strength of America. They care about others and their communities, not because of government coercion; they work for the good of others because they are capable, responsible individuals who want to serve their God and their fellow citizens, as well as themselves.
We believe in individualism, capitalism and volunteerism because these are the things that have made America great. These are also the prisms through which we must evaluate all of our policy decisions. Do our policies encourage, or discourage these ideals?
Our government is not the source of our greatness. Our mission as conservatives is to fight for these things that have proven to make life better for Americans. Liberal solutions are theoretical. They sound good, but they have never worked! Conservative values work, but they don’t sound as good … until we translate them into a compelling vision that inspires and gives people hope.
My vision for America is to leave my children and grandchildren a nation where people have the freedom and wisdom to make their own decisions about the things that they value. I hope they will live in a nation where character is valued more than license, where God is revered, and where work is honored above privilege or entitlement. I dream of nation where children grow up in families with a mom and dad; a nation where all children have an equal opportunity to achieve, to prosper, and to become the most creative and innovative citizens in the world because they have access to the best education, training and development that free markets can provide.
I long for a nation of independent people who scorn any dependence on government because they are owners of homes, savings and retirement plans, health policies, businesses … and possessors of the skills to live productive, self-sufficient lives. I can see an America where development and prosperity are the best allies of conservation and the environment. I want an America that shows compassion to those in need without trapping them in programs that rob them of their dignity and independence. And I believe in an America where the federal government protects its people with armies and justice, but keeps its tentacles out of the lives of individuals, businesses and our free society.
This is our puzzle box top, and this will be America’s destiny if conservatives can win the hearts and minds of the American people. But it’s not enough to be right, we must succeed.
To succeed, we must understand our competition.
You can call them liberals, call them collectivists, or call them socialists; but don’t call them stupid. They have consistently counterfeited our words and hijacked our institutions because they understand that at its core, our nation is one of conservative values. But while they make exceptional efforts to hide their true selves publicly, we are seeing their agenda unfold. Our public schools and universities have substituted group identity and “victimology” for individual responsibility and character. For decades the education establishment and the media have tried to create an anti-capitalist, anti-God bias among the public. And, stymied by the will of the people, the radical left continues to use our judicial system as a liberal legislation factory.
Unfortunately, at the same time, too many who call themselves conservatives have betrayed everything we believe in. At a time when liberals are masquerading as conservatives and conservatives as liberals, you cannot blame Americans for being confused and unsure about who they can trust. We must set the record straight and effectively articulate our mission, our values and our vision…and we must be more than right, we must be smart.
Milton Friedman, in his Introduction to F.A. Hayek’s book Road to Serfdom, explained the communication challenge of conservatives. Friedman understood that liberals have the luxury of appealing to emotion alone to win an argument, while conservatives who argue for individualism must rely on a subtle and sophisticated rational argument. The former is an easy sell, while the latter requires thought.
It is a mistake to believe that our opponents have anything but the best intentions. Their problem is that the “invisible hand” that emanates from free people, voluntary associations and free markets is, in fact, invisible to the collectivist mind. Most have never experienced it. They can’t see it, they don’t understand how it works, and they are impatient with those of us who insist that the only rightful role of government is to make sure that this “invisible hand” is allowed to work.
The facts refute their positions, but the facts are not relevant to our opponents.
There is indisputable evidence that the Bush tax cuts have spurred economic growth, but our opponents want to eliminate them. There is indisputable evidence that the free market pricing of prescription drugs has produced lower prices and spurred more innovation than the government ever dreamed, but our opponents still want the government to take it over. Conservative welfare reforms released millions from dependency on federal handouts, but still our opponents want to rebuild the failed welfare state.
We will not win a rational argument with our opponents, but we can win the argument with the American people. Despite the endless propaganda against conservative ideals, the American people know that the government is wasteful and incompetent, and in their hearts they long for independence and freedom. A recent CNN poll showed that most Americans still agree with Reagan’s statement that “government is not the answer to our problems — government is the problem.” The same poll showed a majority of Americans thought that government was trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses.
I believe Americans will only believe the liberals when they can’t trust the conservatives. We must re-establish our natural bond with the American people, and that means being clear and forceful about what we believe. And it means honoring the trust of the American people by keeping our promises.
We know what we believe and we can paint a picture – a puzzle box top – that will inspire the American people and guide our work. But what are the policies that can take us there? What are the actual pieces of the puzzle?
Here are several worth noting:
— We can put more downward pressure on spending by going after unauthorized earmarks. By standing strong, we were able to end all earmarks this year. But, there is much more to be done. Senator Tom Coburn and many others are working with me to end the earmark favor factory once and for all. We do this because we know that the size of government is directly proportional to the freedom of the individual.
— We can start the process of Social Security reform by beginning the process of creating a funded system. For years, Congress has taken the Social Security surplus and spent it on other government programs. It is time to “stop the raid.” Reforming Social Security empowers individuals because, if done correctly, recipients will no longer be dependent on Government and its empty promises for their retirement security.
— We can change the American education system if we work together. Senator John Cornyn and I have proposed a system that allows states to agree to meet certain goals in return for being released from the shackles of the federal education bureaucracy. This is how welfare was fixed, and we need to let states find innovative ways to improve education. Because the capable individual is at the heart of conservatism, we cannot allow a failed education system to continue to fail our children.
— There is no area fraught with greater danger and more opportunity than health care. It has been said, “If you think healthcare is expensive now, wait until it is free.” There are some who would propose the socialization of our healthcare system. President Bush, on the other hand, would move our system toward individualism, by sharing with every American the more than $100 billion dollars of health insurance tax deductions now given to corporations. Every worker could get a tax credit or deduction worth thousands of dollars to buy their own insurance. If we do this we will have struck a blow for freedom by stopping our freefall towards European socialism – the sort of system proposed in the early nineties by a recent First Lady.
— Freedom, especially free markets, cannot exist without the rule of law. Free individuals rely on government for contract enforcement and basic security in which they can exercise their freedom. Right now we are failing in this regard on many fronts, most notably on enforcing our immigration laws. We must fix our immigration system and resist attempts to make a mockery of our laws by rewarding those who have entered our country illegally with amnesty.
— And for justice to prevail, we need judges who will interpret the law, not make them. President Bush should continue to propose judges in the mold of Thomas, Scalia, Roberts, and Alito. There should be no compromise.
— As you all know, Democrats will attempt to end the Bush tax cuts. Doing so violates the rights of individuals to keep their hard-earned money, and it hurts free enterprise. We will fight to extend the tax cuts and we will propose an end to the most punitive and unfair of all taxes – the death tax.
— Many will propose the destruction of human embryos to obtain stem cells for unproven medical research, even though the best medical results are coming from alternative stem cell sources. President Bush has chosen to stand for life, and I for one choose to stand by his side, because valuing individuals means valuing every human, no matter how young or old, weak or strong.
My fellow conservatives, our mission is to preserve and promote the values and beliefs that benefit our people and our nation. We believe that individualism, capitalism and volunteerism have proven to work better than any government program. Our policies must be focused on promoting these core values and allowing them to work in every area of our society. Our policies are like pieces of the jigsaw puzzle with many people putting them in place. We must keep the box top – our vision – front and center for everyone to see.
For this to work we must have limited government, less taxes, less regulation and less litigation, but these things are not our goals or vision. They are our strategies. They are the steak, not the sizzle. The conservative promise to America is unlimited opportunity and freedom, more jobs, more income, more choices, more security, more faith and more hope for the future. We offer more, not less. We can speak of the future with optimism because we know that our values and vision will make America an even greater nation in the future than it has been in the past.
Conservatives have lost a battle, but we will win the war if we clearly articulate an optimistic vision for the future – a vision rooted in our bedrock principles – then I am confident that our nation will once again embrace the party of limited government, traditional values and a strong national defense.
My friends, I came to Congress to fight for the future of my country. I came here today to ask you to fight with me because together we will succeed.
Are you with me?