EDITOR’S NOTE: The following text is adapted from Secretary Bennett’s speech delivered at National Review Institute’s summit on the future of conservatism on January 27, 2013.
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:
Duncan Hunter Jr.
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.
It is the duty of conservatives to draw the direct link among elections, Democratic policies, and misery. As St. Paul instructs, misery teaches lessons that success doesn’t.
The American people voted in big government, and they will be punished and made to pay for it in immiseration, and they will learn from this immiseration, at least I hope.
4. Play offense.
One of the realities of political governance is that you cannot govern unless you have power. That means that congressional Republicans cannot govern with control of only one half of one third of the branches of government. They can block and prevent, but they cannot impose. Our agenda, our goals, and our expectations should be oriented to these facts of reality.
But just because you can’t govern doesn’t mean you can’t be on offense. In this town, you are either on offense or on defense. You are on offense when you make your argument and take your argument everywhere. It is more important that we sell our ideas everywhere to every group — people of every race, ethnicity, and background — than that we recruit a few different-looking faces to present to the media.
He who initiates sets the terms of debate and forces the dialogue on his terms. Consider Governor Scott Walker. His aggressive fiscal reforms in Wisconsin are an example of effective political offense.
Now, two examples of issues we can go on offense on:
Never yield compassion — real compassion — to the Democrats. It is a virtue (one of the ten in The Book of Virtues). It is so still, though many Republicans regard it as a dirty word with a bad legacy. But never yield the high ground of compassion to the liberals. Never yield to the idea that they care more about the children than we do. Millions of fatherless children are awful policy. And caring doesn’t mean more money.
Please, let’s at long last seize this issue from them. They have owned the issue in the public mind, have controlled most of the levers of the education system, and have totally screwed it up. Let’s take it back. Go on offense. I will be glad to tell anybody how.
Let’s go on offense on the master resource — energy. In addition to being opposed to dumb climate-control measures, let’s make the case for the huge public and private benefits of developing our natural resources through fracking and other means.
Do you know that, done right, we could restore the economy to health solely on the strength of this resource? Second, it will give many individuals great wealth. Third, it will increase our energy independence and free us from people who hate what we stand for and sell us most of our oil. Fourth, it will give us an almost endless supply of cheap energy. Go on offense.
5. Finally, don’t become cynical or make others cynical.
Do not make people more cynical or pessimistic about politics or the political system. Sadly, every day on my radio show since November, I hear people say they are withdrawing from the political arena into a cocoon of disengagement and discouragement. We cannot allow this to happen.
Things have been worse, much worse. Let’s give some perspective, please. They were far worse for us after Watergate. In the 1974 elections, Republicans in the House lost 49 seats. In the Senate, they lost 4 seats. Democrats had substantial majorities in both houses. Gallup polling in 1974 said 30 percent of the electorate was less likely to vote Republican after Watergate. At the state level, Democrats won 628 legislative seats around the country in 1974. That was a record that stood for more than 30 years.
Many commentators and historians said that the post-Watergate Republican party was the walking dead. Haley Barbour recalls that we were thinking of getting rid of the name “Republican” altogether. But a mere six years later, after Bill Brock took the reins and brought the GOP back, Ronald Reagan walked into the White House, leading the modern conservative revolution.
We’ve come back from worse than what we are experiencing today. In 2010, after the passage of Obamacare, the Republican party gained 63 seats in the House, taking back the majority and making it the largest seat change since 1948. Republicans also gained an incredible 680 seats in state legislative races, shattering the Democrats’ record after Watergate.
We must encourage the American people to be active and involved and engaged in important policy decisions. It was my favorite modern novelist, Walker Percy, who warned of America’s downfall, not at the hand of a great outside power, but from crumbling within. From cynicism and withdrawal.
Asked what his greatest fear was, he said, “Probably the fear of seeing America, with all its great strength and beauty and freedom . . . gradually subside into decay through default and be defeated, not by the communist movement, but from within, from weariness, boredom, cynicism, greed and in the end helplessness before its great problems.”
As all great coaches say, “Keep your head up.” As the very great Texas football coach Darrell Royal, said, “Keep your damn heads up. The only reason ever to look down is if you’ve pee’d on your shoes.” Keep your head up.
Or as Margaret Thatcher put it, in a more Thatcher-like, statesmanlike way, “Don’t go wobbly.” And as she often said on American television to skeptical interviewers, “Oh stop now. Cheer up. This is America.”
It still is. And with your efforts, our efforts, National Review’s efforts, it will remain so.
— William J. Bennett, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Education from 1985 to 1988, is host of Morning in America, a nationally syndicated radio show.