CPAC 2008: Is the GOP Still Lost?

Thanks for having me here today. It is great to look around and see so many familiar faces. This gathering is a highlight for me every year. It’s hard to believe a whole year has passed since I last spoke at CPAC. Over the course of that year a lot has happened.

I think it is worth looking at this a little as we attempt to answer the question that has been asked: Is the GOP Still Lost? The short answer to this question, in my opinion, is “yes.”

A year ago we were coming off a stinging defeat at the polls. There was a strong debate within the Party about why we lost so badly. Some argued that the electoral rebuke was a direct result of the war in Iraq, which at the time was not going well. Many who made this argument felt that there were no other significant factors in our loss. In other words, they felt that absent the war in Iraq, the Republican Party would have been just fine and therefore we should change nothing about our Party and just hope for good news in Iraq.

Others, like those of us on this panel, argued that there was something much bigger going on. We argued that the Party had forsaken the principles on which it was founded. We looked around and we saw the seeds of our own destruction all around us.

Skyrocketing federal spending, unprecedented growth in the size of government, a failure to address the looming entitlement crisis and the shameless proliferation of congressional earmarks were all hallmarks of Republican rule in Washington. It was no wonder that we lost.

One reason I think we are still lost is that those of us who saw these warning signs ahead of time have still not convinced a majority of our colleagues to see things our way. That said, we are making some progress.

Many of us here have paid special attention to the congressional earmarking process this year because we believe that it has been a root cause of our downfall. After all, if Republicans cannot be responsible with the little things like earmarks, how are we going to address the big problems facing the nation?

Over the life of our majorities lawmakers became more and more addicted to pork-barrel spending. This shady practice corrupted us and led to disasters like the Abramoff scandal.

The way I see it, the earmarking game in Washington has completely turned everything upside down. When members of Congress are sworn in to office we take an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” We are sent to Washington to represent our local communities, but our solemn oath is to the entire nation.

Over time, I fear that many of us have forgotten that oath and succumbed to what I call a perversion of purpose. Instead of conducting our business in Congress with an eye towards what is best for the whole country, we conduct our business with our eye on what is best for ourselves. This is not how our founders intended this Congress to function.

In particular, this is not how the Republican Party is supposed to function. We are a Party that values limited government and local control of tax dollars. Earmarking, as we have come to know it, is in direct conflict with these values.

But it isn’t just on the fiscal front that we have fallen short. Conservatives believe that the Republican Party succeeds as a coalition. We believe in the three-legged stool of limited government, national defense and traditional American values. We need to get back to that third leg of the stool.

Since the 1970s evangelicals and faith-based voters have cast their lot with the Republican Party. These voters, of which I am one, have put their trust in the Republican Party to do everything in its power to end the legalized killing of the unborn. They have trusted us to defend the sanctity of marriage. And, just as important, they have trusted us to preserve the basic family unit, because they understand that strong families make strong nations.

Without a proper emphasis on the role of the family in our society, we are missing a huge part of the puzzle. It is families that instill character in our young ones. It is families that provide stability and structure as children grow into active citizens.

Now, many voters are looking around and feeling a cultural slide. They are feeling again under attack from forces that they cannot control. Whether it be the elites in academia who preach absolute moral equivalence or the mainstreamers in Hollywood pedaling a degrading product, folks are feeling as if they are under assault. Conservatives need to do a better job of leading in this regard.

The cost of ignoring this leg of the stool is great. Beyond the moral breakdown of society, there is a fiscal cost. When families fail to raise responsible citizens, many of them become the responsibility of the taxpayer in some way. Social conservatives and fiscal conservatives have common cause here. As a conservative who has a foot firmly planted in each camp, I hope we can come together for the good of our nation.

Our Party right now is in the midst of deciding who will represent us as our nominee. We must ensure that our nominee understands the importance of keeping the coalition together. If we don’t ensure the strength of all three legs of the stool going into 2008, we will surely topple over.

On the fiscal front we have had some incremental successes this year, but much much more needs to be done before we are truly out of the woods.

Still, I think we have some reasons to be optimistic about our Party. Most of these reasons, like most good things in politics, come from outside the beltway. Bloggers are representing the feelings of our base in a very vocal way. These online personalities give us a real-time window into the feelings of our grassroots, and they are growing in stature and influence. This is a good thing.

With the rise of the blogosphere and new technologies it is becoming increasingly difficult for Congress to insulate itself from the views of the American people. The voices of concerned citizens are now being heard in ways that were impossible a decade ago, and on occasion we have witnessed the potentially overwhelming power of this new media to influence the behavior of members of Congress.

Immigration reform is the example that I most often cite.

My hope is that this kind of activism can become a tool to hold our Party accountable on many issues of importance to conservatives. The fact that we have not been held accountable on so many of these bedrock issues of conservatism is what I believe has been the central stumbling block for this great Party.

I still have an unshakeable belief that at their core, the American people are conservative. The problem in Washington, and in our Party in particular, is that we have stopped listening. As conservatives, I believe it is important that we remain optimistic about the future of the country and our Party.

Remember, President Lincoln understood that he could win the Civil War while losing every battle. He and Grant understood that in the end it was a game of numbers. Not only was their cause Just and True, it was backed by numbers.

Our cause today is Just and True and we have the numbers to make it happen. We just need to stay focused on our principles and remain persistent. Our beliefs are sufficient to lead this country and our Party as we go forward.

Thank you for having me on this panel. I am honored to here with these other great Americans and I look forward to the discussion.