There were James Buckley and Henry Hyde, taking up the cause of the unborn after Roe v. Wade.
There was Milton Friedman, promoting the practical and moral superiority of free enterprise.
There were Cold Warriors like Irving Kristol and Jeane Kirkpatrick, challenging the premise of peaceful coexistence and moral equivalence with the Soviets.
There were Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, arguing that the “mediating institutions” of civil society protected and promoted human happiness more effectively than big-government programs.
There were Professors Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia, challenging the received wisdom of constitutional interpretation laid down by the Warren Court.
There were think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the new Cato Institute, and a flowering of grassroots organizations around the country.
And of course, in the middle of it all, there were Paul Weyrich, Ed Feulner, Joseph Coors, and the Heritage Foundation, specifically founded to chart a new, conservative direction for public policy in America.
Together, that generation of conservatives transformed a movement that was anti-statist, anti-Communist, and anti-establishment, and made it pro-reform.
Contrary to the establishment’s complaints, conservatives in the late 1970s did not start a “civil war.” They started a (mostly) civil debate.
Because of that confident and deeply conservative choice — to argue rather than quarrel, to persuade rather than simply purge — the vanguards of the establishment never knew what hit them.
The bottom line was that in 1976, the conservative movement found a leader for the ages, yet it still failed.
By 1980, the movement had forged an agenda for its time, and only then did it succeed.
That, my fellow conservatives, is the lesson our generation must take from our movement’s “revolutionary era” — and the enormous and exhilarating challenge it presents to us today.
What that generation did — comprehensively re-expressing conservative convictions to fit the time — has not been done since. Conservative activists and intellectuals are still providing new energy and producing new ideas. But on the whole, elected Republicans and candidates have not held up our end.
Instead of emulating those earlier conservatives, too many Republicans today mimic them — still advocating policies from a bygone age.
It’s hard to believe, but by the time we reach November 2016, we will be about as far — chronologically speaking — from Reagan’s election as Reagan’s election was from D-Day!
Yet as the decades pass and a new generation of Americans face a new generation of problems, the party establishment clings to its 1970s agenda like a security blanket. The result is that to many Americans today, especially the underprivileged and middle class, or those who have come of age or immigrated since Reagan left office the Republican party may not seem to have much of a relevant reform message at all.
This is the reason the GOP can seem so out of touch. And it is also the reason we find ourselves in such internal disarray.
The gaping hole in the middle of the Republican party today — the one that separates the grassroots from establishment leaders — is precisely the size and shape of a new, unifying conservative reform agenda.
For years, we have tried to bridge that gulf with tactics and personalities and spin. But it doesn’t work. To revive and reunify our movement, we must fill the void with new and innovative policy ideas. Today, as it was a generation ago, the establishment will not produce that agenda. And so, once again, conservatives must.
And three recent efforts show that we still can.
Jim DeMint, Tom Coburn, and Jeff Flake’s crusade against earmarks, Paul Ryan’s heroic work on Medicare reform, and Rand Paul’s stand against domestic drone-strike authority all demonstrate that thoughtful, idea-driven conservatism is as powerful today as it has ever been.
It’s time for another Great Debate, and we should welcome all input.
Grassroots and establishment. Conservatives and moderates. Libertarians and traditionalists. Interventionists and non-interventionists. Economic conservatives and social conservatives. All are part of our movement, and all are vital to our success — so all should be welcome in this debate.
There are still nearly three years before Republicans will have a chance to select a new, unifying conservative leader. But together we can start debating and developing a new, unifying conservative agenda right now.
Where do we begin?
A generation ago, conservatives forged an agenda to meet the great challenges facing Americans in the late 1970s: inflation, poor growth, and Soviet aggression, along with a dispiriting pessimism about the future of the nation and their own families.