Back to square one

A very close election is over. President Barack Obama proved to have a brilliant plan — divide and conquer. We still have the same split Congress we inherited  two years ago and a country more divided by his campaign tactics than ever before.  Governor Mitt Romney waged a magnificent effort that united conservative and Republican groups, raised unprecedented amounts of money and implemented an impressive ???get out the vote??? after winning a very divisive and late primary.

America in 2013 will face the greatest political divide in our history at the same time it faces the most significant challenges our young nation has ever encountered. And all of this occurring while we struggle to ascertain who we collectively are.  A perfect storm comprising:

— Rapidly changing demographics which have transformed us culturally and put great strains on the decades-old concept of ???America the melting pot.??? I am not sure that mainstreaming our new arrivals in short order is still to be expected. Our tolerance and circumstances makes this challenge far different than it was decades ago.

— Committed progressives who, like our neighbors in Europe, have a lengthy wish list of cradle-to-grave social services for all and an appetite to expand our safety net regardless of our financial ability to pay for it — making them an intransigent force unwilling to compromise at any cost.   Even in today???s credit downgrading, 16 trillion dollar debt and an unsustainable federal budget, they will not concede the possibility of a more austere government.

— A growing sector of conservatives concerned about our country???s declining values and fiscal recklessness fear the loss forever of the principles guiding our nation since our founders. American exceptionalism is at risk of extinction and there is a commitment to dig deep and fight back at all costs to defend our principles.

— And, the majority of Americans not necessarily fitting into either the progressive or conservative wings of the political spectrum, who are conflicted about our pending challenges.  Eighty percent of all Americans are concerned about the rising deficit and debt but 69 percent and 78 percent oppose Medicaid and Medicare cutbacks, respectively.  In other words, they acknowledge the diagnosis but refuse to take the medicine.

This is the universe of conflicting points of view that President Obama will need to deal with. The winning margins were razor thin and a mandate it will not be.  Couple that with a divided Congress.

We are headed toward either a stare down or an unprecedented negotiating session that will result in legislation acceptable to both sides.  How likely is it that we can accomplish meaningful compromise?

Conservatives strongly believe that our top priorities must succeed and that there are no excuses acceptable for a failure to accomplish them.

Our attention during transition must first be paid to getting our fiscal house in order. As a member of the national Conservative Action Project (CAP), here???s how we believe we can defeat the debt and get our economy back in shape:

1.     Stop the Tax Hike ??? Unless Congress acts fast, a $500 billion tax increase per year is scheduled to hit early 2013. If this happens, even independent analysts warn of a new recession and the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. The federal government does not deserve any more of Americans??? hard-earned income.

2.     Cut Spending ??? Over the past 10 years federal spending has risen from $2 trillion to $3.7 trillion. As of 2012, 62 percent of this spending was dedicated to entitlement programs alone. The government needs to shrink, not grow. In the words of President Ronald Reagan, ???Man cannot be free unless government is limited.???

3.     Overhaul the Tax Code ??? Income tax returns are so complex, even the head of the IRS doesn???t do his own taxes. A simple tax system with lower, flatter rates would be fairer to families and businesses and provide a much-needed spark to our economy by increasing incentives to work, save and invest.

4.     Reform Unsustainable Entitlement Programs ??? Thanks to Rep. Paul Ryan, Republicans have led the way in proposing policies that will reform entitlements. We need a premium-support health model to save and strengthen Medicare where patients, with their doctors — not bureaucrats — make health decisions.

5.     Fully Repeal Obamacare ??? The poorly named ???Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act??? is neither protective nor affordable.

6.     Streamline and Fix Welfare ??? Since the ???War on Poverty??? began 50 years ago, the government has spent trillions of dollars on more than 70 different welfare programs like Medicaid and Food Stamps. Today, poverty remains at historic highs. To borrow a phrase from former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, welfare should be a trampoline for families who need it, not a hammock that leads to a multi-generational cycle of poverty and dependence on the government.

7.     Stop Job-Killing Regulations ??? Under the Obama administration, the number of pages of proposed new rules broke all-time highs in 2009 and 2010. From Dodd-Frank to an out-of-control EPA, American employers have been hit with unending red tape. This government assault on jobs has to end.

8.     Ban Earmarks Forever ??? Republicans rightly banned earmarks two years ago. We owe it to the American people to strengthen the earmark ban and make it permanent.

9.     Balance the Budget ??? Unless we rein in spending, the federal government is projected to accumulate another $10 trillion in new debt over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.  We need a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to keep our fiscal house in order and prevent out-of-control government spending.

Conservatives will have to be enthusiastic about accomplishing a good number of these priorities and support efforts to lure Senate democrats to support the majority of our agenda while respecting some of their points of view. Is this possible given the current reality? I believe it is ??? it must be — for the sake of our children and grandchildren. Let???s take President Obama to task that he will reach across the aisle to bring our country together and back on the right track.

Al Cardenas is chairman of the American Conservative Union, which was founded in 1964 and is the oldest and largest grassroots conservative organization in the nation.