Politics & Policy

Right Workfare

Carrots, sticks, and freedom.

The cause of limited government is in deep trouble. The proliferation of liberal interest groups like Moveon.org — and their well-funded media and grassroots campaigns — has put advocates of limited government on the defensive. It’s long past time to strengthen the conservative effort to counteract them.

Many who find themselves right of the political center have become cowed by the power of liberals to push, and even create, issues using their manpower and financial clout. The ideas and vision of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and the Contract with America are floundering in the face of this well-funded and well-organized opposition. The collapse of serious entitlement reform and failure to fundamentally restructure our tax system are glaring examples of the loss of limited-government momentum.

The base is rightly frustrated. They wonder, “Why won’t conservatives be bold? Why are liberals gaining the advantage and our ideas losing steam?” The answer is simple: carrots and sticks. There are not enough carrots for politicians to do the right thing and too few sticks when they do wrong.

To reorder political incentives away from big government, we’re announcing the New Majority Project at Freedom Works — a program to shape the policy agenda in Washington and in key states looking forward to 2008. We will also hold the Left accountable for their bad ideas and bad votes and show Americans how these policies benefit the few at the expense of many. We will reinvigorate the conservative movement and help refocus politicians at all levels on big ideas.

Many words have been spoken and written on the state of conservatism — mostly on what ails it — since November’s elections. When we say conservatism, we are talking about the brand of small government, leave-us-alone, positive-vision conservatism. This is a perfectly legitimate endeavor; but before our side gets bogged down in paralysis by analysis, let us offer one more word that explains a lot of what ails our side: Work.

The Right has, in many ways, stopped working as hard as the Left. Those who want more from government are naturally better organized than the limited-government movement that wants less. Anyone involved in politics who has traveled around America in the last few years can tell you that there is more work being done by the Left. They’re knocking on the doors, they’re training the activists, and they’re framing the public debate.

Over the past dozen years, roughly from the 1994 elections onward, conservatives have faced what we call the Paradox of the Majority: As Republican majorities and Republican control of government grew and expanded, the conservative movement shrank. But for there to be conservative majorities and conservative governance, there must be a strong conservative movement.

Additionally, too many folks on our side thought the job was finished once they elected good conservatives to public office. But that was only the beginning of the process, not the end. Conservatives shifted too much focus and effort to politicians and political parties and away from ideas, away from good public policy that matters to peoples’ lives. Short-term political considerations trumped good policy.

We must make sure that we don’t become a hollow movement, with many groups and many titles, but few members and less work. White papers are very important to the movement, but we also need the on-the-ground activists to win the battles over the kitchen table in the neighborhood. As conservatives, we must always remember that the real work happens across this great country, not just in Washington.

For conservative policy proposals to again dominate in Washington and around America, and for politicians to take those ideas seriously, they must be promoted vigorously. We are going to do this with aggressive issue advocacy using every communications medium available as well as with the kind of grassroots, neighbor-to-neighbor advocacy for which FreedomWorks is so well known.

The New Majority Project will build on these existing strengths. FreedomWorks members know that government goes to those who show up, and have been leading the fight for lower taxes, less government, and more freedom since 1984. Whether stopping tax hikes in states or fighting new federal programs, FreedomWorks is in the trenches recruiting, educating, and training hundreds of thousands of grassroots activists to fight for smaller government everyday.

The unpleasant tales in the headlines over the past few years demonstrated that conservative politicians, as much as liberal ones, succumb to the temptations of power and the trappings of Washington life. There’s a reason the phrases “Potomac Fever” and “Gone Washington” are part of the lexicon. No matter what party is in power, small-government conservatives will always be the minority. But it is this minority that will create and drive the good policies that preserve freedom and expand opportunity.

If citizens expect elected officials to remain true to the principles they ran on, they must get feedback both when they’re doing the right thing and when they’re doing the wrong thing. Politicians must know that limited-government advocates are paying attention to the things they say and the votes they cast. The best way to keep them focused on the issues we elect them to promote and defend is to activate volunteers on the ground and support their efforts in the air.

What ails conservatism can be cured. We believe “back to basics” works in education, but it also works in politics. We have the right ideas that empower the individual, not simply expand government. We know what must be done; we don’t need to invent new proposals or water down what we’re for. We just need to get back to work.

– Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R., Tex.) is chairman of FreedomWorks. Pat Shortridge is the executive director of the New Majority Project.


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