In a speech he wrote for Vice President Spiro Agnew, the late William Safire coined a memorable term to describe the Washington press corps.
He called them “the nattering nabobs of negativism.”
This timeless description was on my mind this weekend while reading the mainstream media’s coverage of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
During my speech to CPAC, I tried to lay out a substantive and compelling alternative to Obama and the Democrat’s left wing governance, focusing on American energy and environmental policies. I proposed an aggressive, all-American energy strategy that would dramatically boost all sources of energy production in our country.
I also proposed replacing the Environmental Protection Agency with a new Environmental Solutions Agency which would focus on technological solutions to our environmental challenges and adopt a collaborative approach with business and local government, instead of the command and control regulatory model of the EPA.
(You can watch my speech at Newt.org and let me know what you think.)
The record crowd of over 11,000 attendees reacted strongly to this vision for lower energy prices, more jobs, better environmental outcomes and a safer America.
It was clear watching the crowd’s reaction to my speech and the speeches of others that the conservative movement is energized by the possibility of winning an epic election in 2012. It’s also clear they expect real conservative reform from a new conservative president and Congress.
Maybe that optimism and energy made some people nervous.
Before the event was even over, the mainstream media was hard at work trying to pour cold water on the fire that has been lit across this nation.
This article from the Associated Press sums up the doubt and skepticism that so many in our elite media seem intent on sewing amongst the American people.
The not-too-subtle message from these guardians against high expectations is crystal clear: Don’t get your hopes up. Real change isn’t possible in America. You might as well stay home.
In fact, this piece of conventional wisdom is both historically wrong and insidious.
History shows that real change is possible, but only if the American people are informed and engaged.
Power Resides with the American People, Not in Washington
There are two great examples of successful conservative reform from the past thirty years.
The first was the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. The second was the new Republican majority after the Contract with America campaign of 1994.
Both were able to deliver because they understood that real power resides with the American people, not in Washington.
If You Respect the American People, You Can Rely on the American People
Ronald Reagan had a rule of thumb when negotiating with the Democratic Congress.
This rule was described to me by an associate of Reagan’s as, “I show the American people the light. They turn up the heat on Congress.”
Ronald Reagan was known as the Great Communicator, but he can better be understood as a great educator. He thought that if he could use his platform as a national figure to inform the American people, they would provide the pressure to implement conservative reform.
That’s how Ronald Reagan was able to cut taxes, reduce spending, and reform burdensome regulations to revive the American economy despite having to deal with a Democratic Congress that was opposed to his agenda. Reagan understood that the American people would pressure the Congress into doing the right thing. All Reagan had to do was champion policies that reflect American values and treat the American people with respect by being honest and clear about the facts.
Reagan’s great foreign policy achievement was defeating the Soviet Union. Here too he relied on the American people for backup. He understood that his vision for victory – as opposed to détente – would be opposed by much of the establishment, within the news media and diplomatic corps, but supported by the American people.
Similarly, when I was Speaker, the Republican Congress was able to achieve its principle goals despite having to work with a
liberal Democratic President. We balanced the budget while cutting taxes and increasing military and defense spending. It is a historic fact that Clinton never proposed a balanced budget. It was the Republican House that made it happen. (In this blog post at American Solutions, Peter Ferrara argues that President Obama is stealing a page from Clinton’s playbook.)
All this was possible because we understood that President Clinton would eventually yield to the demands of the American people. That’s why after twice vetoing another one of our principle goals, welfare reform, Clinton eventually signed it in 1996, before he ran for reelection. He knew he wouldn’t be able to stand the heat from the American people if he didn’t.
Campaigns on the Issues, Not Personalities
Ronald Reagan and the Republican Congress under my Speakership also delivered on our goals because the preceding election campaigns focused on the issues, not on personalities.
In 1980, Reagan offered a bold, competing vision for America’s future that outshone the malaise and weakness of Jimmy Carter. He promised to cut taxes to boost economic growth, to renew America’s strength in the world by standing up to the Soviet Union, and to restore America’s civic confidence in its founding and unique purpose (American exceptionalism).
With a weak economy and the hostage crisis in Iran in 1980, Reagan could have simply run as “not Carter” and emerged victorious. But then he would not have had a mandate to govern, and would never have been able to achieve his principal goals.
Similarly, in 1994, we explicitly crafted the Contract with America campaign around conservative reforms that we understood had overwhelming support in America (if not in the editorial pages of the NY Times) but had nonetheless been blocked by the Democratic House.
Consequently, despite having a liberal Democrat in the White House, we still managed to achieve a balanced budget, welfare reform, tax cuts, increased military and defense spending, and more.
Perhaps Republicans could have won control of the House in 1994 by simply running against Clinton. However, the Republican landslide would not have been as large, and we certainly would not have had the mandate necessary to enact real change.
Contrast these elections and subsequent real reforms to the 2004 and 2008 elections.
I wrote a white paper in 2004 pointing out that on over 70 key issues, John Kerry was on the wrong side of public opinion by larger than a 70-30 margin. An election campaign run on these issues would put John Kerry at an impossible disadvantage and could have led to a landslide result with a true mandate for President Bush to govern.
However, the choice in the minds of most American voters in the fall of 2004 wasn’t over two competing visions for America; it was between forged National Guard papers and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth commercials. Accordingly, more people turned out to vote against John Kerry than to vote against George W. Bush. With no mandate to govern, is it any wonder that Bush’s subsequent attempt to reform social security was dead on arrival?
In 2008, President Obama won an enormous victory. He carried states that had not voted Democrat in a long time. Democratic majorities in the House and Senate were increased. It seemed that he would have free reign to accomplish any number of liberal priorities.
However, because he had run a personality-focused, shallow campaign about “change” without clearly defining what that change meant for the American people, President Obama’s political capital quickly ran dry. The only way he was able to pass the stimulus and health care bills was through brute force and political backroom dealing. His signature achievements were passed despite the will of the American people, not because of their support. That’s why he was massively rebuked during the 2010 elections and much of his agenda is now being unwound.
A Contract with America in 2012
The lessons from past successes in achieving real change – and past failures – are clear.
Because power ultimately resides in the people, achieving real reform requires the expressed consent and engagement of the American people.
That means if America really is ever going to see that conservative future of freedom, faith and prosperity we heard at CPAC, we will need a campaign in 2012 that is waged on the great issues of the day.
We will need candidates that have a clear and substantive plan to govern and who can explain conservative solutions to the American people in a way that gets them excited and engaged.
We will need a new Contract with America in 2012.
A new Contract with America with specific, substantive, conservative solutions to the great challenges facing our nation is the only way to gain the mandate from the American people needed to bust through all the embedded interests in Washington and the state capitals that will oppose change.
If a new conservative President and Congress develop and win based off of a new Contract with America in 2012, there is nothing that can stand in the way of true conservative reforms that will create jobs, make America safer, and maximize individual freedom and dignity for all Americans.
Not even the nattering nabobs of negativism in the press corps.
Newt’s Quick Links
• At Renewing American Leadership, watch my appearance on Hannity to discuss the Egypt crisis and the Muslim Brotherhood. Click here;
• At ReAL Action, listen to Fred Jackson describe the growing marriage crisis. Click here;
• The Americano highlights how mortgage loans for Hispanics have plunged 63% since the economic crisis. Click here.
• At the Center for Health Transformation, Dr. Andy von Eschenbach, Wayne Oliver and I argue that before any more money is put into biomedical research, the FDA must be reformed so it does not become a bottleneck for innovation. Click here.
• At Gingrich Productions, you can read coverage from our recent screenings of Nine Days that Changed the World and Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny. Click here.