I am deeply honored to have this opportunity to address the 41st Annual Silver Elephant Dinner here in South Carolina. I am grateful for the leadership of Chairman Katon Dawson and for the gracious introduction by Senator Jim DeMint. Senator Jim DeMint is a hero to his former colleagues in the House and has done more, in less time, to shake up the United States Senate than any other conservative in recent history.
While Jim’s introduction was overly generous, there really are some great men here. I am humbled to share the stage so many great conservatives in South Carolina, like Gov Mark Sanford and Sen. Lindsey Graham. I am also grateful to be joined by two of my favorite conservative colleagues in the House. There is no stronger advocate for victory in Iraq in Congress than Rep. Joe Wilson. I am grateful for his leadership and friendship. And when I think of integrity, principle and faith in Congress, one name comes to mind first: Rep. Gresham Barrett. These men are tall trees on the American political landscape and this Hoosier is grateful for their commitment to principle, personal integrity and devotion to freedom.
This has been a “South Carolina kind” of year for me. I am here at the Silver Elephant and I traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan with Joe Wilson and Gresham Barrett.
While in Afghanistan, I joined Joe and Gresham as they looked in on Brigadier General Bob Livingston and the over 1800 troops deployed to Afghanistan with the 218th. South Carolina should be proud every day of the service of these extraordinary citizen soldiers.
We headed to Camp Victory in Kabul and, since I wasn’t scheduled to see any Hoosier soldiers, I offered to carry the cameras and play photographer.
As you might imagine, the soldiers were thrilled to see Joe and Gresham. I spent about an hour running around, taking pictures and….really…taking orders.
Time and again, a soldier would see Congressman Barrett or Congressman Wilson and they’d say to me "hey you, get over here and make a picture for me!"“C’mere son, I need a picture!"
While I hurried to the task, my colleagues would apologetically explain that I was actually a Member of Congress with (ahem) more seniority than either one of them…
When the South Carolina heroes would blush and start to apologize, I assured them I didn’t mind. And, truly, I didn’t. “Besides,” I told them, "that’s how my colleagues from South Carolina always talk to me!"
All kidding aside, I really did want to get some good shots. ..I wanted those South Carolina soldiers to see, decades from now, what I’d seen in them. I wanted it documented for their children and their children’s children.
It’s good to know where we’ve been and what we’ve done.
It reminds us of the things that brought us to the place we are today, and in some measure, foretells our tomorrows.
Republicans would do well to think about where we’ve been…and what we’ve done as we ponder the way forward.
And that’s why I’m here: to talk about the future of conservatism. But to do that, we must look back a bit. As I said, I’m not much of a photographer in the artistic sense, but I do know how to keep things in focus.
A lot of people want to write the obituary for the Grand Old Party in 2008 but I believe the reports of our demise are “greatly exaggerated”.
I believe that conservatism will continue to define American politics in the new century as much as it did in the last.
But when I look back at Election Day 2006, I am convinced that we are in the most perilous and yet the most promising time in the history of our party.
It is a perilous time because we have wandered into the wilderness.
It is a promising time, because every great political movement in our history has come out of the wilderness.
The late William F. Buckley, Jr. often admonished that “despair is a mortal sin” and I do not invite it, but the facts are not encouraging.
The Republican Party lost control of Congress in 2006. And in the three special elections in Republican districts this year, Democrats have won every time. And every national poll shows our president and our party as historic lows. We are in the wilderness.
But there is a way out. The author Mark Helprin wrote, “the way out of the wilderness is the truth; recognizing it, stating it, defending it, living by it”. Here’s the truth as I see it.
I believe the Republicans in Washington did not just lose our Majority; I believe we lost our way.
After 1994, we were a Majority committed to a balanced federal budget, entitlement reform and advancing the principles of a limited federal government.
In recent years, our Majority voted to expand the federal government’s role in education by nearly 100 percent, created the largest new entitlement in forty years, and pursued spending policies that created record deficits and national debt.
This was not in the Contract with America.
Now, our opponents will say that the American people rejected our Republican vision.
But I say the American people did not quit on the Contract with America — we did.
We walked away from the limited government principles that minted the Republican Congress. And the American people walked away from us.
To start our way back, to find our way out of this wilderness, we have to admit that Republicans are in trouble for a reason.
And it has nothing to do with Democrat spin or their vague campaign generalities about hope and change and liberal utopia. It’s about Republicans forgetting what they believe and why they believe it. It’s about Republicans acting like Democrats.
At this Silver Elephant, it saddens me to say that our sterling symbol is tarnished, certainly not by the good conservatives in this room and across the nation. You are the heart and soul of this party.
It has been tarnished by those who abandoned principle for power and cost this party both.
In the name of "governing" and "compassion", our party in Washington has become what we replaced.
The time has come to say at last…the era of Big Government Republicanism is over!
And the good news is, while Republicans may be losing ground, our conservative agenda is still winning!
Think about it.
The 2006 House-cleaning was not a call for weaker defense, more spending, more bureaucracy, more taxes, more abortion and gay marriage.
If recent history teaches us anything, it’s that Americans still overwhelmingly embrace the same conservative values they did when they swept Ronald Reagan into office.
Just a few weeks ago, in Louisiana and Mississippi, Democrats who articulated platforms of pro-life, pro-gun and anti-taxes beat their Republican opponents — in solidly Republican districts. And in 2006, in district after district, many of the seats we lost went to those who articulated a conservative message.
This wasn’t coincidence. Democrats handpicked their candidates for those races precisely because they knew the power of the conservative message.
We will only defeat the Democrat agenda by presenting a positive, conservative message in vivid contrast to the thinly veiled liberalism of the new Democratic majority.
And what should be our agenda? What is most important to the modern Republican coalition?
I was thinking about that the other night as I got ready for bed, grateful to be back home. I’d gone through my routines, having locked up, brushed my teeth, run my mind over the day’s events, and the next day’s agenda….and, as I always do at the end of the day, I glance at the stuff on the top of my dresser — a picture of my beloved wife on our wedding day, the picture of me and my Dad when I graduated from law school, my favorite pictures with each of my kids and an empty bottle of Crown Royal, finished with my brothers the night my son was born — I quit drinking years ago, but I’m keeping that bottle … these items are kind of the crown jewels of my personal life.
We have tons of mementos throughout the house, but these…these are the ones I want there, closest to me. These are the things that most remind me of who I am and what I hold most dear.
The mementos and trinkets atop our dressers tell us a lot about who lives in that home.
What’s on our party’s dresser?
These days, it’s hard to tell beneath the clutter. The Republican dresser has become a catchall, a landing place for the accumulated stuff of the day’s work and activities: Piles of change, money clips and receipts, mementos of the day’s spending. The meaningful reminders of the homeowners are barely visible, dusty and overcome by the clutter of expediency and politics. They’re there, but you have to look hard to see them.
But you know what they are…. they’re what brought you here tonight…
I believe the cherished ideals on top of our dresser are life and liberty and limited government.
And I believe the future of our movement demand that we put them back front and center…
And make no mistake about it; I believe the future of conservatism begins with a commitment to the unalienable right to life. Without the right to life there is no right to liberty or property. Our party must be willing to stand for the unborn and commit to appointing justices to the Supreme Court who will consign Roe v. Wade to the ash heap of history.
And I believe the future of conservatism demands that we stand for the font of life: traditional marriage. Marriage was ordained by God and instituted in law. It is the glue of the American family and the safest harbor to raise children and it must be defended.
And I believe the future of conservatism demands that we to stand with those who defend our liberty at home regardless of what the polls or the pundits tell us to do. Whether the national media will ever admit it, freedom is winning in Iraq. We must take the fight over Iraq to the opposition and tell the American people the truth. Thanks to our Commander in Chief and tens of thousands of our men and women in uniform, the surge is working, Al Qaeda is on the run, and Operation Iraqi Freedom is a widening American success.
And I believe the future of conservatism demands that we defend our liberties at home by opposing censorship, whether it takes the form of the so-called Fairness Doctrine or takes the form of Campaign Finance Reform. Our freedom to speak and listen to who we want when we want is a blood-bought American right. We must not permit the Democrats to bring back the so-called Fairness Doctrine.
And the future of our movement demands that defend our economic liberty and stand for the free market, whether in the freedom of Americans to engage in international trade or the freedom of parents to choose whatever public or private school their children will attend. Conservatives know government has no place standing in the way of commerce or standing in the school house door barring exit to poor children from our most dangerous and failing schools.
And the future of our movement demands that we stand for economic liberty and fight for energy independence. We must confront the environmental Left and give the American people more access to American oil! The American people need to know that one party wants America to tax our way lower oil prices and one party wants America to drill our way to lower oil prices
And lastly, I believe that we must return our party to the principled practice of limited government. We must again be the party of a balanced federal budget that lives within its means by instituting spending discipline and pro-growth tax relief. We must embrace entitlement reform built on Lincoln’s adage that government not do for a man ‘what he can and should do for himself’.
And our candidates must be willing to expose the Democrats’ plan to pass the largest tax increase in American history, explode government spending and over-regulate our economy in the name of climate change.
Life, Liberty and Limited Government-these are the cherished ideals atop the dresser of our party and this movement.
And these are the ideals to which we must return.
It’s time to clear the dresser.
Its time to get back to standing for the things that matter most to our party and our nation.
For years, the late William F. Buckley, Jr. carried a keychain that was inscribed with the words, “don’t just do something, stand there”.
Buckley knew-when we stand on conservative values, Americans stand with our party.
As Ronald Reagan told CPAC in 1975, "A political party cannot be all things to all men. It must represent certain fundamental beliefs, which must not be compromised to political expediency, or to simply swell its numbers.”
Buckley was right.
Reagan was right.
The way back to a Republican Majority is to the Right.
But to go forward, we need a champion who will lead our party to a victory in 2008.
Now, I know some conservatives are not happy with the nominee our party has chosen. Some have even told me they are considering sitting this one out. Their disappointments are deep, and they are legitimate.
But not liking the choice is not the same as having no choice.
In this election, we will have a clear choice for the American people. And I believe it is a choice upon which the very destiny of freedom may rest.
Look, John McCain and I have differed more than once over the years and still do. I was the House plaintiff in the lawsuit that challenged campaign finance reform all the way to the Supreme Court and, well, he remembers that.
But it was a moment in Iraq last year, traveling with Senator McCain and with Senator Lindsey Graham, that convinces me that Republican voters have chosen the right man at the right time to lead this nation
It was spring of 2007. We were at the Marine Corps base in Ramadi, Iraq. We’d been escorted to a small room to meet with Sunni Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, founder of the Anbar Awakening Movement that transformed the Anbar Province and all of Iraq from hostility to U.S. forces to extraordinary cooperation that continues to this day. He was a man who would soon be assassinated by his own bodyguards.
The Sheik entered in flowing robes, a man about my age, with intense eyes and a manner both regal and humble at the same time.
He greeted us one by one. He lowered his head and took my hand, telling me through his interpreter, “It is an honor to meet you.” Then he grasped Lindsey’s hand, telling him the same: “It is an honor to meet you.”
Then he moved to John McCain. The Sheik bowed deeply, then took both of Senator McCain’s hands in his. “It is a special privilege to meet you, Senator McCain,” and then, alluding to McCain’s record as a Navy airman, P.O.W. and upbringing as the son and the grandson of 4-Star Admirals in the Navy, he said. “We know of you and your warrior past and of we know of your proud family of warriors and we respect you".
In that moment, it became clear to me that Senator McCain possessed a currency in this part of the world that transcended titles and position; a currency of immeasurable value that cannot be underestimated and cannot be manufactured.
And this currency could save American lives.
Our choice and these days reminds me of another century, when the people of another country faced an intractable enemy and also chose a maverick to lead them
It was 1940 when the British Parliament forced a change in the conservative government. They chose Winston Churchill to replace Neville Chamberlain–despite Churchill’s support for the socialist Labour Party’s wage and price controls, and despite his cave-in to trade unionists demands in the general strike of 1926.
Despite Conservative disdain for so many of Churchill’s policies, they were wise enough to know that a greater challenge confronted them — an existential threat to their very freedom and way of life. Churchill was a maverick. He was also the man summoned by events to lead his nation at that pivotal moment.
That’s where we are today.
When I think of the unknowable perils that await our nation in the 21st Century, the rise of communist China, the threat of Islamic extremism, the crushing weight of public debt and the collapse of the family, I believe with all my heart that the times and Providence have called forth the right man to lead our nation “for such a time as this.”
John McCain must become the 44th President of the United States.
Make no mistake about it, these are perilous days for the Grand Old Party, but as I said at the outset, I also believe they are days of promise and opportunity. And I still have hope.
But my hope is not built on the promises of politicians or parties.
During this campaign season, the American people keep hearing that if they only “believe” — if they only have “hope” — then they will get “change they can believe in”.
But most Americans know better than that.
The change America needs is one which leans upon the tried and true principles of our founding — and the hope which America has is built upon the One who blessed its birth.
Benjamin Franklin shared a basic understanding of our founding fathers when he said, “The longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: ‘that God governs in the affairs of men.’ And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”
And I would ask my countrymen, ‘is it probable that a nation or a political party be renewed without His aid?”
So I say, to move forward, we must acknowledge, as did our founders, that political movements may "grow tired and weary" and they may “stumble and fall”.
But, as has ever been true for every generation of Americans, "they that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength”. “They will mount up on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary”
Men and women of this movement let us seize upon this moment in history.
Let us renew our commitment to life, liberty and limited government.
Let us embrace the champion that history chosen for us
And let us ever depend on Him who set this miracle of democracy on these wilderness shores.
And if we do that I believe that today’s clouds of peril for our party will break and the dawn of a new day — a day of promise and opportunity will light our way.
Because every time our people have humbly taken the cause of life, liberty and limited government to the throne of grace, throughout American history-Freedom always wins.