The Politics of Reality
The Republicans can come back strong if they keep the faith and make their case.

House speaker John Boehner (left) and Sen. Mitch McConnell


William J. Bennett

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following text is adapted from Secretary Bennett’s speech delivered at National Review Institutes summit on the future of conservatism on January 27, 2013.

Good evening.

It was National Review’s eminence, Bill Buckley, who described conservatism as the politics of reality. Let’s look reality square in the eye. Let me tell you some things that I think are true.

1. First, two honest looks back and a word of encouragement.

I am one of the last standing members of the Reagan years. I hope to remain standing at least through the duration of these brief remarks (yet one more reason to be brief). I was in the Reagan cabinet, and let me tell you this: I take second place to no one in my regard for Ronald Reagan. He was my friend and my mentor, and he gave me a great opportunity.

At the same time, I want to say that the team we have now in the conservative field, scattered here and there, is better, pound for pound, man for man, woman for woman, and more conservative than what we had then. It lacks Reagan, but it has more depth and it has more breadth. And the next Reagan or two is almost certainly among this group.

Think back to Reagan. Who else was there? Not many. I’d say Jack Kemp. The list of great company, this list of great promise, is much longer and larger now.

Before I tell you who they are, let me make this point too. There is a lot of well-deserved regard and reverence for, and invocation of, Bill Buckley. But this new National Review and NRO team, this Lowry team, is better than the old NR team. Again, more breadth, more depth. And more humor, more balance, and more fun, with not as good a vocabulary perhaps as Bill — even added all together — and no harpsichordists among this group, but again, pound for pound, a better group.

So first of all, then, take encouragement from this.

Now let’s go to the list:

Paul Ryan
Marco Rubio
Bobby Jindal
Bob McDonnell
Susana Martinez
Nikki Haley
Scott Walker
Mike Rogers
Ron Johnson
Pat Toomey
Duncan Hunter Jr.
Tom Cotton
Ted Cruz
Jeb Bush
Tim Scott
Mike Pence
Rick Scott
Mary Fallin
Pat McCrory
Rand Paul
Kelly Ayotte
Rob Portman

And the 30 Republican governors and 23 states with Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures.

That should give you a lift.

2. Don’t blame the GOP leadership.

If we are to prevail, in part because of leaders like the ones I just mentioned, we must refrain from something: We cannot afford to continue firing upon and wounding or maiming our own officers and current leaders. We need everyone in the fight — unwounded, able. Criticize, but don’t wound.

It is more difficult to be in a position of governance, such as John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan are, than to be a journalist, a pundit, or even a conservative talk-show host. Trust me, I’ve been in both arenas. It’s much harder to be Boehner than Limbaugh; it’s harder to be McConnell than Hannity; it’s harder to be Ryan than Bennett.

For unlike those who operate primarily in the arenas of commentary, opinion, and philosophy, Republicans in Washington bear the responsibility and burden of actual governance, where ideological purity must often yield to compromise. In his biography of Talleyrand, Duff Cooper explained the difference between willingness on principle to compromise and willingness to compromise on principle.

And lately, much of the blame placed at our leaders’ feet is misplaced. If there is ultimate responsibility for what has come to pass, it rests, as in all things with a democratic republic, with the choice of the people.

Boehner and McConnell didn’t put us here. Obama, and the American people behind him, did. If you want to take issue and complain to somebody, take it to them. Talk to your neighbors.

3. Await the parlous consequences of big government.

The American people must be made to realize what they voted for when they reelected Obama and a Democratic-controlled Senate. So far, they’ve been immunized from many of the consequences. But now, with the expiration of the payroll-tax cut and the gradual implementation of Obamacare, the taxes of almost all Americans have risen, along with many of their health-care premiums. And more will come.