Editor’s Note: The following are remarks as prepared for delivery to the Heritage Foundation on October 29, 2013.
Thank you very much. It’s wonderful to be back at the Heritage Foundation.
It has been quite a month in Washington.
It began with our effort to stop Obamacare — a goal that all Republicans share even if we have not always agreed about just how to pursue it. And it is ending with powerful practical proof of just why stopping Obamacare is so essential.
This law is unaffordable and unfair . . . and it’s getting worse all the time. As of today, President Obama’s policy is to fine any American who does not buy a product that his bungled website will not sell them.
And they call us unreasonable.
Every week, thousands of Americans get letters from their insurance companies, announcing their suspension of coverage, or shocking price increases. Because of Obamacare, Americans are losing their jobs, wages, and hours. And when in July the president exempted big businesses from the hardships of this law, but not ordinary Americans, I felt I had to take a stand.
I am proud of my friend Ted Cruz and the dozens of others — including Speaker John Boehner and the House Republicans — who fought Obamacare, continue to fight it, and will not stop fighting it.
But a month like the one we have been through should lead us not only to recommit to this essential, ongoing struggle, but also to step back and ask ourselves where we should be headed more generally.
What do we do next, not only to stop Obamacare, but to advance a larger, positive vision of America, and craft a practical plan to get us there? What’s next for conservatives?
That is the question I would like to try to answer today.
One of conservatives’ defining virtues is our insistence on learning from history. And to help answer the question, “What’s next?” I think the most instructive history that conservatives can learn from today is our own.
In particular, I refer to the history of the conservative movement and the Republican party in the late 1970s. There are many things conservatives today should take from that era, including hope and encouragement, but also an urgent challenge.
Allow me to begin at the beginning.
By 1977, the Republican party was in disarray. The party establishment had been discredited by political failure and policy debacles, foreign and domestic. A new generation of grassroots conservatives was rising up to challenge the establishment.
The culmination of that challenge was Ronald Reagan’s 1976 primary campaign against a far less conservative, establishment incumbent. That campaign failed, of course, and was derided by Washington insiders as a foolish “civil war” that ultimately served only to elect Democrats.
In other words, we have been here before.
And of course, we know now that Reagan and the conservative movement were vindicated in 1980.
So it is tempting for conservatives today to believe that history is on the verge of repeating itself, that our struggles with the Republican establishment are only a prelude to preordained victory, and that our own vindication — our generation’s 1980 — is just around the corner.
But there is still a piece missing, a glaring difference between the successful conservative challenge to the Washington establishment in the late 1970s and our challenge to the establishment today.
Much of the difference can be found in what happened between 1976 and 1980 — the hard, heroic work of translating conservatism’s bedrock principles into new and innovative policy reforms.
In The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk observed that “conservatives inherit from [Edmund] Burke a talent for re-expressing their convictions to fit the time.”
That is precisely what the conservatives of the late 1970s did. The ideas that defined and propelled the Reagan Revolution did not come down from a mountain etched in stone tablets.
They were forged in an open, roiling, diverse debate about how conservatism could truly meet the challenges of that day. That debate invited all conservatives and, as we know, elevated the best.
There was Jack Kemp, advancing supply-side economics to combat economic stagnancy.