Beware the conservative entitlement mentality

(Oklahoma Perspective, Feb. 2008) Which side of the political divide has the entitlement mentality? Democrats and liberals, of course. It’s our friends on the left, as everyone knows, who assume that money grows on trees, benefits rain down like manna, risk protection is for worry warts, hard work and deferred gratification are passe’. While that’s often true, we on the right have entitlement egg on our faces today. Ask Dennis Hastert, Bill Frist, and the late Republican Congress. A funny thing happened on the way to that permanent GOP majority; a thing called taking it for granted. Now it’s gone. The great conservative comedown of this decade hit Colorado before it swept through Washington DC. Complacency and apathy played a big part. The entitlement mentality of political success rose up and bit us. As an ally of this magazine's publisher, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, since its early days (when I was running a sister think tank in Denver), let me suggest some lessons for Oklahomans from our experience. [Editor: This was the cover story in OCPA's monthly magazine, subtitled .“Sobering Lessons from the Colorado Comedown.” Click the link to see the illustrated PDF.]

OCPA wisely avoids siding with either political party. Colorado’s Independence Institute does the same. Republican election results are still a good gauge of conservative trends, however. By that measurement, we peaked in 2002.

Gov. Bill Owens, cut from the same cloth as George W. Bush, won reelection in a landslide. The GOP held onto a US Senate seat, gained a congressional seat, and took back the State Senate. William J. Bennett, former education secretary under Reagan, told National Review that Owens was “America’s best governor.” He said Senate President John Andrews was “helping make Colorado the most conservative state in the country.”

Flattering, but premature. By the time term limits (which I helped enact in 1990, and still support) ended my tenure in 2004, Democrats were riding high again. Republicans lost both houses of the legislature that year for the first time in four decades. Dems also gained one each in the US Senate and House. In 2006 they recaptured the Governor’s office, added another US House seat, and widened their legislative majorities. Grateful party leaders awarded Denver the Democratic National Convention for August 2008.

How important was all this for Colorado in terms of public policy? The impact has been negative and huge. During the early Owens years, led by the party of limited government and individual freedom, our state saw tax cuts for income, sales, and capital gains; tougher accountability for public schools; expansion of charter schools; education vouchers for the poor; accelerated highway construction; defunding of public employee unions; a Defense of Marriage Act and defunding of Planned Parenthood. Bennett’s appraisal seemed realistic.

But after the reversal in 2004, Gov. Owens finished his term in retreat. Though casting over 100 defiant vetoes of liberal legislation, he pushed through a 2005 ballot issue to increase taxes and spending, gave ground on illegal immigration, and helped defeat my 2006 ballot issue that would have imposed judicial term limits. The popular congressman running to succeed him took over a divided GOP and lost badly to Democrat Bill Ritter, an ex-prosecutor and pro-lifer.

The party of unlimited government and collective solutions, with Ritter in charge, has romped at Coloradans’ expense since early 2007. Mandates for renewable energy, a slowdown in oil and gas exploration, gay adoption, and reinstatement of Planned Parenthood (so much for his pro-life claim) were among Ritter’s early moves. In November, bullied by James Hoffa Jr., he decreed collective bargaining for all state employees, a potential 30% bump in pay and benefits.

A universal health care tax, vehicle taxes, and a heavier petroleum severance tax are next on the governor’s list. He has a climate task force and wants a Carbon Fund. His education agenda features a mushy curriculum makeover, new obstacles for charters, and preschool for all. He’s strategizing to get rid of TABOR, our constitutional tax and spending limit that was weakened by his predecessor.

It’s all quite predictable, straight out of the progressive playbook. So where was the conservative playbook all this time? What in the world was wrong with our side?

If I knew, I’d be the next Karl Rove, and this article would be on Fox News. But my diagnosis of the shocking turnabout in Colorado is not in the realm of tactics and formulas, coalitions and polls. It’s in the realm of attitudes. Our problem was the conservative entitlement mentality of being too comfortably on top for too long. Our problem was taking it for granted.

Drinking their own bathwater, as the saying goes, is hazardous to the health of any group, including a political movement. Or believing their own press clips, to put it more politely. (Ouch, I guess that includes Owens and me.) Looking back with newfound humility, Colorado conservatives and Republicans can see that liberals and Democrats in our state were lean and hungry, stealthily planning and on the make, years ago when we were fat and unsuspecting. This didn’t happen overnight.

In 2000 they ran hard and took the State Senate so as to force redistricting into the courts. That same year they passed a school spending mandate designed to cripple TABOR. We were rolled. In 2002 they snuck a campaign finance scheme into the constitution that hamstrung business and gave labor a tenfold advantage. We were outfoxed again. Using those new rules, they rode a river of money such as Colorado had never seen– much of it from four billionaire ideologues – into their 2004 victories.

Leading those leftist mega-donors was Tim Gill, a gay activist and software tycoon. A long article about him in The Atlantic Monthly, March 2007, is must reading for anyone wanting to study how our Colorado experience could impact 49 other states. You can be sure the other side is making such a study; the DNC coming to Denver this summer proves it. How Gill himself sees the future is evident from his own words, quoted in the article’s title: “They Won’t Know What Hit Them.”

Have term limits, taking effect since 1998, cost Republicans a few seats each cycle as popular incumbents retired in demographically shifting districts? Yes. Are the state’s media generally friendlier to liberals than conservatives? Yes. Has migration from the coasts (and Mexico) moved Colorado from red toward blue? Yes again.

But does any of this excuse our sad disarray? I say no. I say the fault is in ourselves, not in our stars. We simply coasted too much. We had it easy and we took it easy – too easy. The price finally came due.

Political pendulum swings are as American as apple pie. We need them, human frailty on both right and left being what it is. The concern in Colorado is that we’re seeing a long-term sea change, not just a swing. Liberals are entrenching, settling in, while many conservatives remain disoriented and demoralized.

Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute (succeeding Tom Tancredo, who succeeded me), reels off the names of 50 organizations on the left in our state in as many seconds – a potent echo chamber of progressive propaganda, ostensibly untainted by partisanship or ideology. Many are funded by Tim Gill, our homegrown George Soros, eager to franchise nationally.

Caldara also laments the way conservatives were taken into camp by Bill Owens and other Republican leaders when times were good, similar to what occurred in Washington under Tom “Nowhere Else to Cut” DeLay and the current President. It made the right keep silent when we shouldn’t have. Far better, if one can adapt the old slogan, to let Reaganites be Reaganites: let the voices of principled protest ring out when politicians start to fold.

Electoral victories and incumbency for their own sake are a false mistress. We need a fixed, unvarying standard of what’s good policy. My state and yours should be constantly measured against the “conservative leading indicators” of (1) a constitutional government, (2) a market economy, and (3) a social order balancing liberty and duty – seeking a tone of common life that is (4) culturally cohesive and confident, (5) morally rigorous, and (6) religiously reverent. We should work untiringly for these objectives, and accept no substitutes.

The Scottish historian Alexander Tytler, a contemporary of Adam Smith and our own Founders, observed that nations attempting democracy pass through stages from bondage to faith to courage, then rising to liberty and abundance, then sinking to complacency, apathy, dependency, and finally back into bondage. It’s sobering to think where on that circle our country is today.

Within America’s larger story there are chapters repeating the same pattern. Colorado was undone, for the time being at least, by complacency and apathy. Now we see a dependency ethic taking over. Sobering indeed. The remedy? Conservatives state by state must stay hungry, stay on offense. “The natural progress of things,” as Thomas Jefferson warned, “is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” Yet this is not inevitable, if we pay what he said is liberty’s price: eternal vigilance.