With conservatives heavy-hearted all across the country about their choices and chances in the 2008 campaign, we in Colorado can relate. Our lean times started several years ago. The answer lies in looking not just to next November, but to a longer horizon: even to mid-century. Will America remain the hope of the world as these decades unfold? Conservatives tend to believe it will; liberals dissent. Long before hope became a cheap thing, a racket on the left, it was a noble thing on the right, as Lincoln and Washington well knew. The latter wrote: “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” That’s the real meaning of hope in our tradition. CHARTING THE CONSERVATIVE COURSE TO 2050 By John Andrews Chairman, Backbone America Former President, Colorado Senate
Hope: Cheap or Noble? A Senator's House of Cards Yesterday: The Colorado Comedown Today: On Borrowed Time Tomorrow: On Tiptoe for the Future The Pole Star: American Hope 2050 The Passport: Contrast and Cohesion The Course: Protective, Confident, Proud The Compass: Strong Accountability Nobly Save or Meanly Lose?
“We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” – Lincoln
“Be always ready to account for the hope that is in you.” – St. Peter
With conservatives heavy-hearted all across the country about their choices and chances in the 2008 campaign, we in Colorado can relate. Our lean times started several years ago. I’ve concluded the answer lies in looking not just to next November, but to a longer horizon: even to mid-century. Will America remain the hope of the world as these decades unfold? Conservatives tend to believe it will; liberals dissent.
This essay draws lessons from the Colorado comedown and proposes as our new beacon: “American Hope 2050.” I conceived it when Barack Obama hadn’t yet debased the word with his phenomenal but ultimately phony campaign.
Long before hope became a cheap thing, a racket on the left, it was a noble thing on the right, as Lincoln and Washington well knew. The latter wrote: “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” That’s the real meaning of hope in our tradition.
Winning in politics and public policy involves four “I’s.” You need ideas, individuals committed to them, institutions to project them, and issues as a vehicle of change. I’ve limited this discussion to the first element, ideas. Get those right and the rest will follow. Get them wrong and nothing else matters.
A Senator’s House of Cards
Smart cards, coded with magnetic data strips, not only can pay your bills or unlock your hotel room. They now also serve as keys to legislative power in Washington. Congressmen use them to access voting machines on the floor.
Such technology isn’t yet used at the Colorado General Assembly. But one day in 2003, all 99 of my fellow legislators were presented with a “voting smart card” anyway, compliments of Senate President John Andrews. On the front were our state flag and the vision statement: “A Better Colorado for the 21st Century: Freedom, Responsibility, and Opportunity.”
On the back, instead of a magnetic strip, was my five-point test for good legislation: less government, lower taxes, personal responsibility, individual freedom, and stronger families.
Essential for gaining the Senate President’s support for your bill, I told colleagues, would be its fidelity to these criteria:
(1) Does the bill reduce the size of government, lessen regulations, or elimi-nate unnecessary programs?
(2) Does the bill promote individual responsibility in spending, or reduce taxes or fees?
(3) Does the bill encourage responsible behavior by individuals and families and encourage them to provide for their health, safety, education, moral fortitude, or general welfare?
(4) Does the bill increase opportunities for individuals or families to decide, without hindrance or coercion from government, how to conduct their own lives and make personal choices?
(5) Does the bill enhance the traditional American family and its power to rear children without excessive interference from government?
We borrowed the card idea from former Florida House Speaker Tom Feeney, who’s now in Congress. Our Colorado version drew appreciation from Republicans, offset by Democratic leader Joan Fitz-Gerald, who grouched to reporters: “Why would I care?”
Yesterday: The Colorado Comedown
That year and next, before term limits retired me, our legislature in partnership with Gov. Bill Owens accomplished much for the conservative agenda. We curbed health care mandates and union power, expanded charter schools, controlled spending, passed parental notification, enacted education vouchers, and drew permanent congressional districts.
An activist state Supreme Court struck down the last two, however. And Republican defections blocked passage of judicial reform, right to work, curbs on eminent domain, restraints against illegal immigration, a color-blind civil rights act, and an academic freedom bill. The smart card message was sadly lost upon some on my side of the aisle.
Then abruptly our time was up. The 2004 elections saw a Democratic legislative sweep for the first time in 40 years. In 2006 Democrats took the governorship as well. Colorado went from red to blue overnight, shattering the complacent assumption among conservatives in our state that there’s always next year. Now our policy gains are being erased week by week.
Other states have since had the same rude awakening. So have Republicans in Washington. The seduction of power, family feuds, short horizons, a tactical mindset, and nostalgia for bygone glory days – for the GOP these have proved to be not the makings of that permanent majority so recently dreamt of, but the recipe for a political comedown.
Now my Senate gavel gathers dust, and our smart card, that little conscience for the politician’s pocket, is just a souvenir. A season out of power distills humility and sharpens concentration. To get back in the game, I believe conservatives need to cut the nostalgia, quit feuding, recover our principles, and see the far horizon again. We can then connect anew with the American people on that basis – the basis a Madison or a Lincoln could approve, the basis of a confident, capable New World conservatism.
Today: On Borrowed Time?
That heady time we remember as the Reagan revolution of the 1980s, with its second wave, the Gingrich revolution of the 1990s, was an era of huge electoral victories and remarkable policy achieve ments, mixed with plenty of disappointments, betrayals, and failures. It was also a time of many goals unreached and reforms unrealized.
To complete Reagan’s revolution is a worthy aim for conservatives in coming decades. But we stand no chance of doing so while looking in the rearview mirror. Talk of “finding the next Reagan” is fantasy. We must work on finding our own soul as persons and patriots, and our bearings as a conservative movement. From this will come the needed impetus, including statesmen equal to the hour, for reviving the Reagan revolution and completing it.
The old age that overtakes nations and pulls them down should concern us. Weariness, softness, self-indulgence, self-importance, arrogance, smugness, a sense of entitlement, dull habit, overweight, laziness and boredom, grievance and complaint, the blurring of imagination and memory -- everything we deplore in someone over the hill is equally a danger to societies as the years mount.
Well into her third century, how is the United States of America doing? Has she seen her best days? Are we on borrowed time against the societal and political entropy observable in history elsewhere? Perpetuity is not guaranteed for the “empire of liberty” foreseen by the Founders. It will fade unless we conservatives conserve it.
Tomorrow: On Tiptoe for the Future
George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and all of America’s founders understood this. They looked to the far horizon, built and prepared accordingly. So did Abraham Lincoln, the seer of distant danger and promise in his greatest moments from the Lyceum speech to the Second Inaugural. So did Ronald Reagan, prophet of the shining city on a hill whose best days he insisted are not behind her. Those heroes will none of them come again, but what is that to us? Our task is to follow their example and live up to their legacy.
For us to keep faith with America as they did means being grounded in yesterday, the best of timeless truth and historical experience, as well as being on tiptoe for tomorrow, the still unseen possibilities of discovery and the human spirit. A conservative movement that meets this standard will both advance politically and hold its integrity. Conservatives who settle for less will neither win the people’s trust nor deserve it.
Americans in this century confront decisions and dangers unimaginable to earlier generations. Implacable enemies, impatient rivals, multiculturalism, secularism, globalization, and technology present tough new challenges for the United States in the coming decades.
We’ll need more than precepts on a pocket card if we are to succeed. Navigating our way forward will require four essentials. I’ll call them a pole star, a passport, a course, and a compass. Consider each and see if you agree.
The Pole Star: American Hope 2050
Conservatives must have one bright political beacon, high, fixed, and clear, in order to stay on course and bring majorities with us. We could do worse than to take for our pole star the idea of “American Hope 2050.”
In that simple phrase is packed a lot of evocative power. To begin with, the very mention of America now poses a stark litmus test between left and right. They are not sure at all about America’s goodness, and we are sure. So let’s assert that goodness.
America as the hope of mankind was an article of faith from the Founders through Lincoln to Reagan. Today it too is stridently denied, not only by demagogues abroad, but also by intellectual elites in our own country.
Now is our chance to identify the conservative movement with that spirit of hope. We do so not in the gauzy sentimentality of progressivism, Obama-style, but in fidelity to America’s founding principles as embodied in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
Let our pole star be the practical hope of a better life for all, achieved the American way and across the span of this new American century, shared generously with all peoples of the earth who wish America well, guarded prudently against the depredations of any who wish us ill. The mid-century dateline, 2050, sets a long horizon and speaks of sturdy optimism, stewardship for the needs of America’s children and grandchildren, foresight to a hopeful future. Political success in the present is a by-product.
American Hope 2050 is the right fight for us to be in. “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth,” said Lincoln. That stark choice confronts our generation as it did his. Which will it be?
The Passport: Contrast and Cohesion
Thinking about the passport we’ll carry as conservatives in the new century means sorting out our identity, our credo: what we stand for and who we are. In Colorado the past few years, working to recover our morale and mend the rifts after a series of bruising defeats, I have found it helpful to first set a sharp contrast between the prevailing notions of progressivism and the wiser “small R” republican worldview. The latter still enjoys a natural majority, even amid the flux of trendy attitudes in a state that is now politically purple at best.
My next step in defining the passport is then to remind “big R” Republicans just how easy it is (or should be) for us to remain unified as a party, despite all our intramural disagreements.
One version of the contrast exercise goes this way: Conservatives favor reason, liberals favor feelings. We favor experience, they favor theory. We favor theology, they favor sociology. We tend to realism, they tend to utopianism. We favor the personal, they favor the collective. We favor the family, they favor the state. We favor the market, they favor the government.
Conservatives favor freedom, liberals favor equality. We emphasize responsibility, they emphasize excuses. We trust elected legislators, they trust appointed judges. We favor the United States, they favor the United Nations. We favor human beings, they favor the earth. (After a reporter asked me for ten points, I jotted this list of twelve; it could easily have been 112.)
The unity exercise grew urgent after the Colorado GOP split bitterly over a 2005 tax increase. My list this time was 20 points – too long to reproduce here, but aimed at showing fellow Republicans how many reasons there were apart from taxes (No. 21) to prefer our party rather than the Democrats running state government.
Our shared beliefs on issue after issue – from rights and law to free enterprise and private property, from defense and sovereignty to education and morality, from health and welfare to energy and environment – all make it imperative, I pleaded, that we not cede power through disunity over any one issue to opponents who reject our beliefs entirely. In a two-party system, better to stick with the party that agrees with me 80% of the time than to dump them for spite and be saddled with the others who agree me none of the time. The logic was unassailable; even so our side lost the next election. This passport problem still needs a lot of work.
Course: Protective, Confident, Proud
The course we present to voters is what charts the way toward American Hope 2050. It follows logically from the passport and the pole star. Let’s make the case to our fellow citizens that in these troubled times, where you stand politically is a function of where you stand on America – and we believe that after looking at the alternatives you will stand with us. The alternatives are sharp. Time and again in political contests for a generation past, and today more than ever:
** One side, ours, is more protective of America in a dangerous world.
** One side is more confident in the American people to use freedom responsibly, and
** One side is more proud of America without apologies.
This is true hands down. The evidence is overwhelming. We as conservatives, mobilized politically through the Republican Party, hold this huge advantage over the liberals and the Democrats. If we’ll just map the future in these terms when candidates face off or policies are debated, the future is ours.
Do you agree (our side should ask) that enemies are out there, evil is real, many wish us ill, and government’s first job is to protect its people against those threats? Then follow our course: we’re the side that is consistently stronger on defense abroad and tougher against crime at home.
Do you agree that individuals and families are mostly capable of making their own decisions, that enterprise and voluntary association are usually the best problem-solvers, that taxes and regulation should be minimal, that centralized power is suspect? Then come with us: we know you’re not children; we honor your dignity.
Do you agree, finally, that America is noble and good, self-improving though imperfect, special in history, the hope of the world? Then follow our course: we feel no embarrassment for God and country, faith and flag.
Protective against enemies, confident in liberty, proud and patriotic – ask if the liberal is okay with that course heading, and then watch how he squirms, how quickly the qualifiers cloud his answer. I usually encounter a “but” in the first ten words of a liberal’s reply. The left will not, cannot, take our line. A solid majority of Americans will.
The Compass: Strong Accountability
The same entropy that ages a person or a society can stall out a political movement or an administration. Ask ex-Speaker Dennis Hastert.
Ask President Bush or any second-term White House. My lesson in how circumstance or expediency can subvert good intentions came as a young Nixon staffer 35 years ago.
The republic is disserved when conservatives split the difference with liberals in the name of “governing.” We fail our trust when losing-more-slowly gets redefined as “winning.”
Without a steady compass, in other words, the beacon ahead and the map in hand aren’t enough.
Suppose, then, we were to stipulate that a human community (nation, state, or city) that is genuinely and vibrantly conservative is one that has…
** A constitutional politics
** A market economy and
** A social order balanced between duty and liberty.
And one that also is…
** Culturally cohesive and confident
** Morally rigorous and
** Religiously devout.
I call these the conservative leading indicators. Let them be our standard by which to measure policy in the moment, and by which to hold ourselves accountable over time.
Will the accountability hurt sometimes? Yes, that’s the benefit of it.
Nobly Save or Meanly Lose?
This politico’s perspective on American Hope 2050 obviously differs from what a political scientist or political philosopher might offer.
My unacademic metaphor of pole star and passport, course and compass, reflects a lifetime of stump speeches and a naval boyhood. Middlebrow and practical, nothing pretentious.
Yet scholar and politician alike can remember Goldwater and the landmark year of 1964. That was 40-some years ago, a generation plus. Intrepid conservatives navigated us from then to now.
From here to 2050 will be another 40-some years, one more eventful generation. Much is entrusted to us. May we warrant a “well done” from our descendants at mid-century.