Returning the GOP to Conservative Principles

The following remarks were delivered by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.) on March 1, 2007 at the 34th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.      

Thanks Ed [Feulner] for that kind introduction. Few people have done more for the conservative movement than Ed. Conservatives were in the wilderness when the Heritage Foundation opened its doors in 1973. But in the three decades that Ed’s been there, Heritage has become the biggest think tank in town and a big part of the reason conservatives now drive just about every policy discussion in America.

And I’m not just saying that because my wife used to work there. If Heritage gets any bigger, it’s going to have a higher gas and electric bill than Al Gore. Ed, thanks for your commitment to the conservative cause and, especially, for doing so much to train the next generation of conservative leaders. Many of them, I’m sure, are here. Thank you.

It’s great to be here, but I won’t keep you long. I don’t want to be like the Englishman that Winston Churchill once described as having “a great gift … for compressing the largest amount of words into the smallest amount of thoughts.”

But I do want to share a few thoughts with you, thoughts about the importance for this country of a strong and energized conservative movement and the direction I think the Republican Party needs to be moving in to ensure that conservative principles continue to animate our government and our laws.

A great statesman once said that “many people occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time they just pick themselves up and carry on.”  I know that after the November elections a lot of Democrats hope, and a lot of conservatives fear, that Republicans in Congress are going to do just that, just keep on making the same mistakes that put us in the minority. Well, I’m here to tell you we learned our lesson.

But that’s not to say that Republicans in the Senate haven’t accomplished anything in the last two months. I like to point out that the Republican Minority can do two things: we can shape laws and we can block them. And ladies and gentlemen, I can tell you this: thanks to 41 Republicans in the U.S. Senate, not a single bad proposal has made it to the President’s desk.

Republicans are serious about a return to conservative principles. And the only argument we need to remind ourselves of the importance of that pledge is the way the Democrats have responded to the President’s new strategy in Iraq. I’ve been calling it the “Goldilocks” approach, because it seems like they’ve been trying to come up with something that’s hot enough for the anti-war base but cool enough for folks who worry about the consequences of precipitous withdrawal.

They’re trying to split the difference, and the problem, of course, is that none of the plans they’ve come up with is just right for everybody. To most of the folks in my conference, this whole issue is very simple: if the Senate doesn’t support the mission in Iraq, it should cut the funds for it. That’s the Senate’s constitutional role.

But the Democrats seem to be intent on doing just about everything except that. They’ve talked about denying reinforcements for the troops, and even deauthorizing a war resolution that we passed by a bipartisan vote. This is what happens when a political party lets a small group of folks who don’t represent the majority, let alone the mainstream of its supporters, take the whiphand.

But we can’t just sit back and watch all this play out. We need to learn a lesson from it instead, about the importance of unity. Conservatives are always best off when we stick together. Because when we don’t, when we fight among ourselves, the Democrats are always the ones who benefit most. That’s what happened in 1910, when feuding factions threatened to tear the Republican Party apart.

Teddy Roosevelt, who was still pretty popular at the time, thought he’d solve the problem by giving what turned out to be a pretty famous speech in Kansas on the true meaning of the Republican Party. Well, his attempt to heal the rift exposed its ugliness instead, and it helped Democrats take control of Congress in the mid-term elections that fall. After that, Roosevelt decided to challenge his own handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, for the presidential nomination. He ended up splitting the vote and ensuring that a Democrat won the White House in 1912.

Something similar happened back in 1992, when Ross Perot took the mantle of limited government away from Republicans and split our vote. Well, we’re still seeing the consequences of that … I think she’s on a listening tour of Iowa at the moment.

Teddy Roosevelt meant well. And while it might not have turned out well for the party, the message he brought to Kansas still resonates today. He said the greatest threat to self-government are those who would “twist the methods of free government into a machinery for defeating the popular will.”
He was talking about the small groups, the special interests, that even then were trying to turn America into a place where most of us wouldn’t want to live.

Well, I think Americans are being reminded right now about the power these kinds of groups have over our friends in the Democratic Party. It’s tearing them up at a time when we need clarity and unity of purpose from our congressional leaders.

Republicans have an opportunity and even an obligation right now to offer a contrast to the disarray we see in the Democratic ranks, and I’d like to think we’ve been doing a pretty good job of that over the last two months in the Senate.

I know a lot of Republicans are still gloomy about the November elections. And Republicans will have to continue to prove, not just say, that we’re recommitted to limited government and fiscal restraint if we’re going to win back the majority.

But as important as these two principles are to our identity, they’re not enough. A small government can still subvert the purposes of a free people. A thrifty legislature can still stifle our ability to speak freely or to associate as we wish.

A more fundamental duty for conservatives right now, as I see it, is the one Roosevelt spoke about in Kansas, the duty to make sure we’re united in the effort to protect the majority of Americans from those who use government to subvert the popular will.

This is a constant battle in virtually every area of public life, from the way we conduct foreign policy, to the way we run political campaigns. Republicans have always stood firmly on the side of constitutional principles and the rule of law, while our opponents seem to favor the judgments of an elite.

The most obvious example of this is the courts. For decades, groups that haven’t been able to bring about social change through elected representatives have sought to do so through activists on the bench. I know this battle firsthand. For more than a decade, I’ve led the fight against so-called Campaign Finance Reform.

I brought my case all the way to the Supreme Court, and lost. I found it hard to believe that the justices who were now calling for limits on political speech were the same ones who disapproved of any limits at all on virtual child pornography and the dissemination of illegally intercepted communications.

But you always get a second chance in this country, and the battle to reverse Campaign Finance isn’t over. Three years ago, Wisconsin Right to Life challenged the law after it was blocked from running ads opposing a Senate filibuster of judicial nominees. They won the case, it’s headed back to the Supreme Court, and I have to tell you, I’m looking forward to the fight.

Another affront to free speech is the system of taxpayer-financed presidential campaigns. Every year Americans are asked to check a little box on their tax returns to indicate whether they want to send a few dollars to the national campaign fund. Last time they checked, 91% of us held back our pencils.

Yet even as nine out of ten taxpayers say they don’t like the system, some lawmakers want to expand it. That little box? It used to ask for $1. Now it asks for $3. The proposed reform would drive it up to $10. Never mind that nine out of ten of us oppose it, or that the money is diverted from important public services like schools and defense.

But this is standard operating procedure for the activists who seem to control the Democratic Party. And the power they enjoy in Washington should be clear to anyone who’s been following the legislative calendar.

It’s no secret that plaintiff’s lawyers favor Democrats. More than 95% of the money their political action committee contributed in the last election cycle went to Democratic candidates. And they’re expecting something in return. One of their lobbyists put it pretty bluntly in a recent issue of “National Journal.” He said, “We’re in attack mode now.”

Well, Republicans understand the dangers of a legal culture that tries to replace the democratic process with a regime of regulation through litigation. That’s why we passed three long-stalled civil justice reforms in the last Congress: class action reform, bankruptcy reform, and gun manufacturer’s liability reform.

President Bush understands the danger, too. And while it will be much harder to enact legal reform in the current Congress, he’s committed to restoring sanity in the courts by appointing commonsense conservative judges who will exercise judicial restraint, but who will be unrestrained in throwing out frivolous lawsuits. 

Big Labor showed up in the Senate this week too. Just yesterday, we took up the 9/11 bill that Democrats on the campaign trail said would “fully implement” the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.

What they didn’t say is that Republicans had already implemented 37 of the Commission’s 39 recommendations, and that the backbone of their bill is a proposal to give collective bargaining rights to airport security screeners.

Well, we’ve been down this road before. We had a huge debate in Congress over collective bargaining when we created the Department of Homeland Security in 2002. Americans didn’t like the idea of labor slowdowns among security personnel then; they said so at the polls; two Democratic senators lost their seats over it. And voters would be shocked to know that the Democrats are at it again.

They’d be shocked to know there’s a bill on the floor of the Senate right now that would make our last line of defense against another airline bombing more like the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Everybody knows security personnel need to be flexible if we’re going to be able to respond quickly to threats. Two years ago, we trained about 40,000 airport screeners on explosives detection in under three weeks. Under collective bargaining, the same training would take two to six months. The 9/11 bill should be focused on improving our security. Period.

And we’re not going to let it through unless it is. The President has said he’ll veto any 9/11 bill that includes collective bargaining. We have the votes to sustain that veto. Ladies and gentlemen, this bill will not become law as long as this dangerous provision is in it.
But that’s not the only thing that Big Labor’s after. The House just took up “The Employee Free Choice Act” of 2007. It’s tough to remember a bill that was more deceptively named. This bill doesn’t increase employee choice — it limits it, by lifting the requirement that votes to unionize take place by secret ballot.

What the union bosses want is for employees to publicly state whether they favor creating a union or not. This is a clear effort to bully workers who have the courage to speak out against a union. Those who want a union would be at risk too, of being bullied by employers.

Well, look: there’s a reason we’ve had secret ballots in this country for the last 200 years: and that’s to protect voters from intimidation. This is a bedrock principle of a free society, and a clear corollary to the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. And Republicans are not going to let that principle be violated.

About two hours from now, Democrats in the House are going to push this bill through on a party line vote. But I can assure you that it will meet a different fate when it gets to the Senate.

Now, the Democratic Leadership knows it runs the risk of appearing too cozy with liberal interest groups. That’s why they’ve made a point of distancing themselves rhetorically from the fringe over the last year or so. But in the age of YouTube and the blogosphere, many of them can’t help but get caught now and then.

We saw it recently when Congressman Murtha revealed the details of his “Slow Bleed” strategy to a group associated with MoveOn.Org. That clip is one of the reasons we’re seeing so much disarray among the Democrats right now. Because it put the Goldilocks Approach to Iraq in full view.

If you haven’t followed this closely, here’s a recap:

President Bush gave us a plan to secure Baghdad, and named the best counterinsurgency expert we have, General David Petraeus, to lead the mission. Democrats and Republicans approved General Petraeus without dissent.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the Democratic Leadership was working out the details on a plan to appease the Bush-bashing base while appearing to support the Petraeus Mission.

First, there was the Biden resolution, but that turned out to be too strong for some Democrats to take.

Then there was the Levin Resolution, which the anti-war activists didn’t think was strong enough.

Then we got the Pelosi Resolution, which denounced the surge but claimed to support the troops. It passed the House a couple weeks ago, even though a number of Democrats complained that it really didn’t amount to much.

And that’s when we heard about the Murtha plan to load up an appropriations bill with so many caveats and conditions that the Petraeus Mission would never work — even as U.S. soldiers continued to fight it out in Iraq.

This strategy was obviously radioactive to a lot of Democrats, so they started to talk about changing the original authorization, to unring the bell.

Well, as I’ve said, you can’t unring the bell. And the Democrats seem to realize that now. So they’ve decided now to back away from that one too.

The American people are right to demand common sense in Washington. They’re not getting it from Democrats: on Iraq, free speech, security, and a whole lot of other issues. And so far, I think Republicans in the Senate have done a pretty good job of keeping some of their worst ideas at bay.

Yesterday marked an anniversary … On February 28, 1854, about 50 opponents of slavery got together in a little white schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin, to form the Republican Party. It was a motley crew, a little bit like CPAC, actually. There were the Northern Democrats, the Whigs, and some folks from the Free Soil Party.

They had a lot of differences, this group. There weren’t very many of them. And Ripon, Wisconsin, wasn’t exactly the most visible place to launch a great political movement.

Yet they were united by a powerful idea. And in two short years, the new political party they formed had sent 92 congressmen and 20 senators to Washington. It put up a strong candidate in the next presidential election; and four years after that, it sent a lanky, one-term congressman from Springfield, Illinois, to the White House.

We know what happened next. Abraham Lincoln saved this country through an unbending commitment to unity and a deep reverence for the Constitution. He marshaled the disparate voices in that fledgling new political party; united them around a powerful ideal, and then brought the country along with him.

You and I are the heirs of Lincoln’s political legacy. We have a special duty to promote and defend the same ideals he did — to keep them alive in these challenging days and in the days ahead, and to bring our friends along with us. And we will. I know we will. When we stumble over the truth, we will not get up and carry on.

Thank you.