Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell's Remarks to CPAC

Excerpts of Sen. Mitch McConnell‘s remarks Friday at CPAC:

Thanks for the warm welcome. It’s a pleasure to be at CPAC. And thank you, Matt [Schlapp].  You’ve got a great lineup of speakers this morning. I saw my friend John Boehner: Johns’ a great leader, and he’s a great teammate … John Cornyn is doing a great job for the people of Texas, and he’s doing a terrific job at the National Republican Senatorial Committee … Jim DeMint is one of the strongest advocates of conservative principles we have … And I know you’re all as impressed as I am at the leadership of Dr. Tom Coburn … I want to thank David Keene for inviting me. David’s been one of the great thinkers and foot soldiers in the battle of ideas over the years. He’s been organizing this conference longer than most of you have been alive — and they get better every year. Some people call CPAC the Conservative Spring Break, and David’s the driving force. He can be proud of that, and I know he’s proud to be the father of a brave young soldier serving our nation on a second tour of duty in Iraq.

The organizers of the first CPAC probably thought they’d done a pretty good job when about 200 people showed up to hear a speech by a Republican Governor from California named Ronald Reagan. At the time, few could have guessed that the man they’d come to hear would do so much to revive our nation’s fortunes and to help secure the freedom of so many millions overseas. And few could have known how important CPAC would prove to be during that period and still is today. CPAC has been host to presidents, lawmakers, and some of the nation’s top opinion leaders. But most importantly, it’s been a training ground for young minds. Of the record 8,500 registrants this year, more than half are college students, including, I’m told, a good number from Kentucky.  Compare that to the Left’s annual attempt to imitate CPAC, the so-called Take Back America Conference, which last year drew about a third as many people as CPAC. What this proves, of course, is that conservatives are more fun and interesting than liberals. I mean, let’s be honest: who wants to hang out with guys like Paul Krugman and Robert Reich when you can be with Rush. Some in the media like to think that the conservative movement is on its way out, that it’s devoid of energy and enthusiasm. They should come to CPAC. I know it might be a disappointment to many of them, but they’d see what I see: the conservative movement is alive and well.

But even if we put on a better conference than our friends on the other side, they’ve got quite a bit more influence at the moment. And they have big plans for the country. And since all of you are on the front lines — the volunteers, the organizers, the future opinion leaders who are carrying and will carry our message to a new generation — this morning I thought I would discuss some of the things that I think we all need to do if we’re going to stage a comeback. And we must.  The first step, in my view, is to remind ourselves where we are. The political landscape is a lot different today than it was when Kentuckians first sent me to Washington. Imagine this: back then, the Republican governor of New Jersey had just been reelected with 70% of the vote. Republicans had just taken over both legislative chambers in Connecticut, and the Republican candidate for President had just won 49 of 50 states. For Republicans in 1984, the political compass didn’t point in one direction. Our principles, as we know, are universal. But back then, it really showed. Not so today. As we look over the political landscape in 2009, we see that every single one of New England’s 21 House members is a Democrat … that there isn’t a single Republican senator representing tens of millions of Americans on the West Coast … and that you can walk from Canada to Mexico and from Montana to Maine without ever leaving a state in this country that has a Democratic governor.

We’re fast becoming a regional party instead of a national one. There’s a name for a regional party. It’s called a minority party. Being in the minority might be okay if you’re in a college debating society. On today’s campuses, it might even be fun in a countercultural sort of way. But I assure you: it’s not good for America when we’re the minority, and none of us should be content to stay there. I should note that looking at the list of events this weekend, it appears that no one at CPAC seems the least bit content about our current political standing — or at least with relying on old methods for building the party and communicating our message to the broader public. One of the reasons so many of you are here is that somebody else told you through Facebook or Twitter that they were going. And before you leave, many will have heard about the best and latest strategies for raising funds, recruiting candidates, or building coalitions for conservative causes among minority groups.

All these things must be at the heart of our renewal. But the instrument is only as good as the strategy. And the strategy has to improve. First and foremost, we need to search out those who’ve left our party, wherever they are, and give them a good reason to take a second look. These people were Republican for a reason. We need to remind them why.

As we do this, we shouldn’t fall for the false temptation of diluting our principles. You don’t expand your appeal by turning away from those who are most loyal. Instead, you work harder to appeal to everyone else. But this much is clear: our message isn’t getting out to as many people as it should. And that needs to change. Second, we need to be concerned that the very wealthy and the very poor, the most and least educated, and a majority of minority voters, have stopped paying attention to us. We’ve made the case to Hispanic and African American voters that our policies are best suited to the aspirations of these communities. Yet in the last election Hispanic voters turned out in far greater numbers for the Democrat candidates, and sadly, the party that was founded on the principle of racial equality attracted just 4% of the African American vote in the last presidential election.  These are not reasons to abandon the effort. They are reasons to work twice as hard. And in this regard, it’s encouraging to see that CPAC is hosting a panel this year on building Hispanic coalitions. This is necessary work — and it shouldn’t be an uphill battle. As Reagan once said, “Hispanic voters are Republicans. They just don’t know it yet.” It’s up to all of you to show Hispanics in search for the American Dream that the Republican Party is their home.

As we seek to reach old friends and find new ones, we need to explain our principles.  As conservatives, we believe a big and encroaching government is a threat to liberty … that greater liberty and freedom lead to greater prosperity, stronger families and communities …  that workers should be allowed to keep more of what they earn … that judges should follow what the Constitution says, not what they want it to … and that human life is sacred. I was disappointed that one of the first things the new administration did was to reverse the Mexico City Policy. Americans do not want their tax dollars to be used promoting abortion either here or abroad … Conservatives also believe that the government has no more solemn duty than to protect the people who established it. And on this last point, let’s be very clear about something else: When it comes to Guantanamo, the new Administration needs to show it’s more concerned with safety than symbolism. Many of those still detained are serious threats to the safety of our citizens.  In fact, several of these terrorists still proudly proclaim their desire to kill more Americans.  The new Attorney General visited Guantanamo earlier this week and he returned with a glowing report. He said it was well-run, that he was impressed with the people in charge, and that every single person there has to be moved out and Guantanamo shut down in less than a year. The Obama Administration needs to answer a question: Where exactly do they expect to send these guys next January? They have no answer. Well I do: these terrorists are right where they belong.

Over the past few months, we’ve seen a Big Government mentality creep back into fashion on Capitol Hill. It seems the failed big government solutions of the Carter-era are making a comeback — and I assure you, Republicans are going to do everything we can to make sure that the failed policies of the past stay where they belong: right next to the bellbottoms and the leisure suits. No one doubts that government should have a role. Indeed, some challenges are so great or so urgent that they require government to act. Government can also play an important role in helping Americans meet 21st century challenges through things like education reform, making healthcare more efficient and more affordable for everyone, and increasing energy exploration. But in the face of new challenges, Democrats seem to be reverting to the old playbook of bloated government, out-of-control spending, and higher and higher taxes to pay for it all. During the last administration, they never passed up an opportunity to wring their hands about the spending that both parties approved to recover from a horrific terrorist attack, fight two wars, and to rebuild after the single worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Now the shoe’s on the other foot. And what have we seen? Well, in just one month, Democrats have spent more than President Bush spent in seven years on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hurricane Katrina — combined. If the overall spending has been jawdropping, then the individual proposals have been even more troubling. Everyone is familiar with the $1 trillion dollar Stimulus Bill. A bill that was supposed to be timely, targeted, and temporary turned out to be none of the above. Much of the spending won’t go into effect for years, much of it’s directed at wasteful projects like government golf carts, and much of the new government spending will be virtually impossible to cut off once the economy recovers.

Next week, we’ll be voting on another spending bill, the annual Appropriations Bill that covers spending through October. We’ve had a couple days to look at what the Democrats are proposing, and well, it looks like the Stimulus just wasn’t enough for them — because as it turns out, the Appropriations Bill double dips by including money for 122 programs that were in the Stimulus too. We hear a lot from Democrats these days about the need for Americans to sacrifice for the good of the whole. Yet at a time when Americans are tightening their belts, Democrats in Washington are letting theirs out a notch or two — and they’re not pushing back from the table yet. When it comes to fiscal responsibility, Democrats are clearly telling Americans to do as they say, not as they do.  What does all this mean? Well, one way to look at it is that for more than two centuries Americans have embraced a simple principle that’s at the heart of who we are as Americans: That principle said that we work hard, so our kids can have better lives and more opportunities than we do. Well, it seems that this Congress wants to reverse the order. It seems they want our children to work hard to pay a debt that we ran up because we don’t have the will to make the hard choices now.  

This government-first approach isn’t limited to spending tax dollars. It also extends to the Democrats’ approach to free speech. On this issue, the Constitution could not be clearer. The Founders felt so strongly about government limitations on speech that they prohibited it in the very first amendment. Yet today, some on the other side want to shut you up by enforcing limits on what’s said over the airwaves. They call it the Fairness Doctrine. What they should call it is the “We Can’t Compete With Conservative Talk Radio Act of 2009”. And it will be an honor for Republicans to make sure that this unconstitutional proposal never becomes law.  The government-first approach is evident in Washington’s effort to stifle the freedom of workers in this country to decide, without coercion or intimidation, whether they want to belong to a union. Workers should be free to vote the way they want without a union boss or a manager looking over their shoulder. And Republicans will make sure that this Union power-grab never becomes law.  Pushing back these efforts to basically Europeanize America will not be easy. It will require a committed effort on the part of every one in this room. It will require carrying our message to those who have left our party, and to many more who are receptive to our message. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress will be vigilant about promoting the ideals that made our nation great. And we will be relentless in proposing new solutions for the 21st Century challenges we face.

Some people look at Republican losses in places like the Northeast and the West Coast and say it’s over in these places, that we need to focus on our strongholds. That’s not the kind of party I signed up for. If conservative principles are right, then they’re right for everyone and for all times. I know we can compete in these places without diluting our message because I’ve seen it done. I described earlier what most of the country looked like in 1984. I didn’t say what Kentucky looked like in 1984. Well, it didn’t look like it does today. And there’s an important lesson here.  The year I decided to run for the Senate, both Senators in my state were Democrats. Of the six congressional districts, Republicans held only two. Six years later, I was reelected, and I set a plan in motion. I knew that Kentuckians, like most Americans, were common-sense conservatives. Most of them may have been registered as Democrats, but on almost all the issues, they agreed with us.  My strategy was simple: first, find good candidates. If they could win on their own, let them. If they couldn’t, surround them with people who could push them over the line. It was hard work, but it paid off. Just nine years after we set the plan in motion, both U.S. senators from Kentucky were Republican; five of six congressional seats were Republican. And, in a final coup, the state Senate flipped to Republican control when a longtime Democrat agreed to switch parties in my living room.

Over the years, Kentuckians got comfortable with Republicans. And they’ve gotten comfortable sending other Republicans to the state capitol and the nation’s capitol. Believe me: it’s amazing how much people will start to trust somebody with an R after his name once he’s been around a little while — and shown them what a good, conservative government can do for their lives. It happened in Kentucky. It happened last fall, when New Orleans sent a Republican to Congress for the first time since 1891 — a Republican who also happens to be the first Vietnamese member of Congress in history. And with your hard work and creativity it will happen in every other state and city in America in the months and years ahead.  So my message to you is this: be proud of our principles, be daring in recruiting new candidates, and never, ever tire of fighting for the ideas that will ensure the safety and prosperity of this great country. You are the soldiers. You will do all these things. Get others to do them too.

And before you know it, we’ll have made our comeback.