What Conservatives Want

by Michael A. Needham
It’s not just about picking the right side.

‘We have to win elections.”

Party strategists in Washington throw around the phrase as though it were some brilliant political insight. It’s not. Most Americans learned this concept in elementary-school civics. The reason party strategists invoke a concept most Americans learned well before they could vote is to frame politics as a binary choice only about elections. As Kevin Williamson put it recently on NRO, “Which side are you on?”

So let me join the chorus: Of course it’s critical we win elections.

But winning elections isn’t sufficient. As the founder of the Heritage Foundation, Edwin J. Feulner, explained in a speech shortly after Ronald Reagan won the presidency, conservatives also must win in the realm of policy. Put another way, political power should not be viewed as an end in and of itself, but rather the means to achieve the policy outcomes that will save the country.

Williamson invokes the common refrain that “the differences among us are minor compared with the differences between us and them, which are fundamental.”

Unfortunately, there are some fundamental differences between grassroots conservatives and the party strategists in Washington. Those differences get to the heart of whether conservatives will win in the realm of policy.

Not surprisingly, much of the difference revolves around GOP electoral consultants and candidates’ relationships with the lobbying class. In an age of multimillion-dollar elections, $5,000 checks handed over at D.C. fundraisers have become the coin of the realm. To be sure, conservatives do not want to punish lobbyists, or the special interests that hire them, for exercising their constitutionally protected First Amendment right to petition the government — but we don’t want to be giving them handouts for it either.

Look no further than the upcoming debate over the Export-Import Bank to see how this relationship impacts policy. The Bank, which is basically a Fannie Mae for exporters, is commonly known as Boeing’s Bank. The $93 billion multinational aviation company, which has acknowledged it does not need the Bank’s support, receives upwards of 80 percent of the Ex-Im Bank’s taxpayer-backed loan guarantees.

Senator Obama called Ex-Im a “fund for corporate welfare” in 2008, and he was right. Ex-Im should be an easy victory for conservatives — as a matter of policy and politics. Can anybody honestly claim shuttering it would risk a Democrat winning a seat over a Republican?

The fact that Ex-Im is not an easy policy victory raises an obvious question about the political strategists who constantly tell conservatives to keep their heads down through the next election: “Which side are you on?”

We’ve seen this corporate-welfare dynamic play out elsewhere, on issues like Trade Adjustment Assistance, the Internet sales tax, and subsidies. But even on Obamacare, the differences are very real. At various times since President Obama signed his signature policy objective into law, prominent Republicans have declared the issues settled. In March 2010, full repeal was considered a “distraction.” In November 2012, Obamacare was considered “the law of the land.” In January 2014, Republican-aligned business groups began to conclude it was time to “fix” the law. And just last week, congressional Republicans signaled they may become the “fix it” party.

Conservatives are not willing to give up on the fight to repeal Obamacare and replace it with an affordable system that allows health care to match every individual’s needs. And we expect our elected leaders to chart a course to that outcome.

Williamson seems to acknowledge conservatives are right to expect more, but ultimately concludes “it isn’t where we are.” And that is a problem.

All too often party strategists in Washington think about the “art of the possible” when they should be thinking about setting the agenda, driving the message, and defining the playing field. We need to stop analyzing the chalk lines on Obama’s home turf.

Make no mistake: Conservatives want to win elections just as much as Karl Rove does, but we refuse to accept a binary outcome. The Bush years — No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, massive earmarking and food-stamp spending, and bank bailouts — serve as a vivid reminder that conservative policy suffers when the principal objective is to maintain political power.

So on Election Day, we will vote. In the lead-up to elections, we will walk our precincts. We’ll be working every other day of the year to drive our candidates and elected officials to embrace sound, conservative policy, whether or not it makes them comfortable.

— Michael A. Needham is the chief executive officer of Heritage Action for America.