This August, Congress goes home to reconnect with constituents and begin to make a closing argument before the 2014 elections. Members return to their districts after a year that has shown the extent to which our nation’s governing institutions have become detached from the demands of the people. Across the country, they will find that voters are tired of the status quo in Washington, eager for effective solutions to the problems they face, and skeptical of our political system’s ability to provide them.
Our times do not call for timid, poll-tested solutions. They call for a bold agenda that delivers opportunity for all but favoritism to none.
Conservatives are well-positioned to present this agenda. As conservatives, we believe in an America that is safe and secure; where family has the opportunity to flourish; where choices in education, health care, and other necessities are moved closer to home; where taxes are fair and flat; where all Americans have the opportunity to go as far as their talents and hard work will take them in pursuit of the American Dream; where government concentrates on its core functions, recognizes its limits, and treats everyone equally, showing favor to none.
Fifty years ago, Ronald Reagan gave his famous A Time for Choosing speech. While our times may be different, the choice Reagan perceived remains the central one. “This is the issue of this election,” Reagan believed then as we do now: “whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”
Today, those far-distant elites have more power than at any other point in our nation’s history. Bureaucrats at the Department of Health and Human Services make too many health care decisions. Common Core opens the door for Washington to wield enormous power to impose its plans on education. Environmental radicals, out of touch with Americans’ need for reliable and affordable energy, want to make electricity and gasoline prices higher in service to their agenda.
However, the problem is not merely that government bureaucrats have misguided policy priorities. Entrenched interests have recognized that they can use these planners to line their pockets by passing regulations conducive to their unique business models and placing barriers in the way of insurgent competitors. Policymakers in government have embraced this dynamic, realizing that they can use private-sector allies to enact their progressive agenda.
In our nation’s Crony Capital, there are mutual benefits to this relationship. Government may be too powerful and burdensome for most Americans, but it works well for the special interests that are treated as a protected class in return for doing its bidding.
There is nothing wrong with success that is achieved through merit, hard work, fair competition, and the creation of value in the free market. Yet increasingly, many of our nation’s major industries have come to be dominated by small handfuls of massive companies that are subsidized by taxpayer dollars and insulated from competition by onerous federal mandates too burdensome for small challengers to overcome. The very taxes, regulatory regimes, and trade policies that make this possible are all written by those same industries, which invest in an army of lobbyists to descend on Washington.
Americans recognize this. It’s the reason public polling shows such consistent disdain for Washington politicians and bureaucrats. Thanks to the actions of government and business, that sentiment has surged over the past several years. The nation is ready for leaders who will address concerns about the relationship between mobility, economic dynamism, concentrated power, and collusion between special interests and government.
In this environment, conservatives face a new urgency to address an old charge: that the policies of limited government benefit the wealthy and the well-connected over everyone else. Left unanswered, this accusation will sink our coalition’s ability to advance our broader agenda by preventing us from building the trust among the public that is necessary to embark on ambitious but difficult policy reforms. Worse, this libel from the left has allowed proponents of big government to claim—ludicrously—the populist mantle themselves even as their own policies have helped to entrench the special interests they claim to oppose. It is for this reason that debates over issues such as the reauthorization of the Export–Import Bank are such crucial tests of the path forward for anybody claiming the mantle of Main Street.
It is incumbent on us as conservatives to advance a reform agenda that exposes the left’s hypocritical favoritism toward entrenched interests. The fundamentals of that agenda will be familiar to all who are acquainted with the principles of American conservatism: limited government, a healthy culture, and a strong defense. Each of those commitments is essential. Those who propose downplaying social issues or foreign policy advocate not a cease-fire with the left, but surrender. Given the stakes, such a stance is unacceptable.
But these long-standing policy priorities for our movement must be complemented by a renewed focus on ending the shortcuts to success that are available only to the well-connected. This focus on cronyism offers conservatives a new way to talk about the most important issues of the day and demonstrate that we are speaking to the concerns of the American people. One model for achieving broad consensus is the realm of K–12 education, where highlighting the pernicious role of teachers’ unions in setting education policy at the state level has opened up new possibilities for conservative solutions.
The approach is straightforward: Identify the interests enriching themselves at the expense of the public, highlight the conflict between the success of those interests and the principles of choice and competition within free markets, andturn the policy debate into a debate over fairness and justice.
Too many on the right see conservatives’ success in framing the K–12 reform debate as an aberration. On the contrary, it is the result of our movement having launched head-first into a debate, engaged the debate on terms set by conservatives year-after-year, and won the public argument. A strong conservative movement will treat every issue facing our nation as an opportunity to educate, debate, and persuade in a similar fashion.
Our best opportunity to win a constituency for higher education reform is to explain how the left’s effort to pump more student loan money into the existing system serves only to fill the bank accounts of colleges and their administrators. Our solutions unleash an unprecedented number of personally tailored options so that each student is armed with the education he or she needs to succeed in the 21st century without the need for massive government financing.
On health care, we can expose Obamacare for what it is: more out-of-touch, big-government interference in our personal health care decisions. We can persuade Americans that for all the benefits the law provides to insurance companies, it has done them little good. It is unfair, unworkable, and unaffordable, and it must be replaced with solutions that truly empower patients and their doctors with quality health care, affordability, and choice.
On energy, we can prove to the public that our policies of access and enterprise offer them the ability to balance concerns between development and the environment. Free energy markets can provide a better future—one with more jobs, lower bills, and higher take-home pay—than the left’s approach of subsidies to the well-connected.
We have the ability to transform our tax code and unleash growth while simplifying a process that many Americans rightly find impossibly complicated. All it takes to enact those solutions is a willingness to take on protected interests and jettison the loopholes that turn the code into Swiss cheese for those with the best tax lawyers, lobbyists, and accounting departments.
Conservatives have solutions for the challenges our nation faces in a complex, dangerous, and interconnected world. Do we have the will to explain them, fight for them, and persevere to see them through? Margaret Thatcher believed that “you win the argument, then you win the vote.” The only way to win an argument is to have one. And while many people think Washington, DC, is broken, the truth is that it’s broken only for the American people. For the wealthy and powerful, Washington is a finely tuned machine aimed at avoiding principled arguments and keeping the gravy train rolling for well-connected interests.
Conservative principles—free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense—produce a strong economy, a strong society, and a strong America. They make this country the greatest place in the world in which to live and produce a better quality of life now and for future generations.
America needs politicians who are willing to proclaim this. It would ruffle feathers, but that’s what leadership often requires.