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Steele: Republicans can learn from Reagan

In his new book, "Right Now," Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele writes that Republicans have made the mistake of drifting away from their conservative roots. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

In his new book, “Right Now,” Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele writes that Republicans have made the mistake of drifting away from their conservative roots. An excerpt.

Chapter one: Steps 1 and 2: Admit we have a problem, then admit our mistakes
Conservatives across the country have raised their voices loud and clear in the past six months, with tea parties and townhall meetings and two resounding victories in New Jersey and Virginia. They’ve looked at what’s going on in Washington, D.C., and they’ve said: enough is enough.

Enough of a federal government whose liberal leaders are gleefully tearing down the economic foundations of capitalism. Enough of the arrogant liberal lie that we can tax and spend and borrow our way back to prosperity.

Enough of mortgaging our children’s future on “stimulus” packages that are mostly pork, political paybacks, and the taxpayer-funded delivery of a long-awaited wish list from the Democratic Party.

Enough of the liberal thought police who label anyone who disagrees with them a criminal or a bigot. Enough of the leftist fantasy that we can negotiate with terrorists who want us dead.

But you know what else? Enough of Republican politicians who let them get away with it.

Enough of the one-sided compromises.

Enough of running from our principles.

Enough of forgetting our principles.

Enough of complaining about big government when we’re out of power, but embracing big government when we’re in power.

What in the world has happened to Republicans’ conservative principles?

Now more than ever, the Left in America is openly attacking the foundations of the American experiment. They believe the government is not only smarter than the individual, but is also entitled to make all manner of decisions on behalf of the individual. They believe real freedom isn’t doing what you want to do, it’s doing what government lets you do.

They brook virtually no disagreement on issue or philosophy, and they enforce this hegemony through the most influential positions of power in America: the presidency, majorities in the House and Senate, activist judges, the print and broadcast media, and the academic community.

Every day they do their dead-level best to convince Americans that freedom isn’t really about being free. They demand influence in every purchase and sale, in what you do for a living and how you do it, in how you interact with your community, in what you spend and how much you give away. They chip away at our freedom, surrendering more and more of your individual rights in service to the “best interests” of some larger group.

Of course, the liberals decide what those “best interests” are — never mind what we want for ourselves and our families.

To the American Left, freedom is now defined as falling in line with elites who are quick to vilify any dissent — and that is not exactly an invitation to reasoned debate. To disagree with the Left today is to invite a withering personal attack on one’s character.

They’re free to do that, of course. Unlike a growing number of liberals, conservatives defend the right of everyone to speak their mind. The problem with growing liberal authority is that lately it includes a concerted attempt to limit their opponents’ right to express a dissenting opinion. Look at the support from Democratic senators like John Kerry, Dick Durbin, and others for reinstating the Fairness Doctrine in order to muzzle conservative talk radio. Check out the Obama administration’s demonization of Fox News. Or consider the Justice Department’s decision to drop the case against members of the New Black Panther Party who stood guard on Election Day at a Philadelphia voting precinct — with one Panther carrying a truncheon — in order to intimidate voters from choosing the “wrong” candidate.

This administration’s view of its political opponents was perhaps best captured in the Department of Homeland Security’s 2009 report recommending that military veterans, pro-life groups, and opponents of unrestricted immigration be watched as potential domestic terrorists. (As the Washington Examiner later revealed, the report used “reliable” sources such as a fringe website specializing in warnings about the approaching end of the world.)

The Left has gone off the rails. Where once both sides of the American political conversation defended vigorous debate, the Left now seeks “enforced consensus” and groupthink — they rarely consider opinions other than their own. Today, everyone knows the consequences of dissent against the Left: to disagree in even the smallest way is not only to invite the label “close-minded,” but also, allegedly, to be filled with hate and rage.

Just ask any of the tea party demonstrators or healthcare “reform” protestors. These are typical, tax-paying Americans who join together to appeal for responsible spending policies and limited government. In response, they have been maligned by Democratic leaders and much of the mainstream media as dangerous, hate-filled extremists. Sometimes denouncing them as a “mob,” other times (in contradiction) condemning them as part of a phony Astroturf campaign, the liberal establishment, after years of engaging in the most vitriolic attacks on President Bush, has suddenly discovered the supreme value of civility — and the need to enforce it.

Yet liberalism doesn’t deserve all the blame for our economic decline, the diminished priority of American security, and falling support for the right to speak one’s mind.

The other half of the equation is this: Republicans stopped putting up a fight.

Not all of us gave up the fight and not all the time. But many, especially among our leaders, have in recent years allowed our principles to be buried under layers of compromise or outright abandonment in the name of power and acceptance and going along to get along.

It’s understandable how we got here: check the newspapers, the TV, and the Internet. The last decade has seen a withering and unyielding assault on all things conservative — a fire hose blast of invective, name-calling, and abuse from every angle. It has been exhausting to be a conservative!

But the fact that the fight is hard doesn’t excuse us from combat.

After the historic transformation of our nation under President Ronald Reagan, how did we end up so far from our principles — and how did it happen so fast?

Republicans once insisted that our nation’s opportunities rest not in government but in the hands of individuals. Over the past decade or so, however, we Republicans lost our way. The disparity between our rhetoric and our action grew until our credibility snapped. It wasn’t the fault of our ideals. It was the failure of our leaders to live up to them.

Over time, many of our party’s leaders abandoned conservative principles in a misguided effort to maintain and expand their political influence. We became in many ways just another party of big government. In short, we behaved like Democrats.

True, the country has changed, and our party must adapt. It is wrong, however, to believe we must change our principles or adopt “conservatism-lite.” After all, the voters did not suddenly become liberal. They simply lost confidence that the Republican Party holds the answers to their problems.

We must articulate a positive vision for America’s future that speaks to Americans’ hopes, concerns, and needs. It’s time to tell voters what we believe, how we’ll lead, and where we’ll go. We need to explain how we Republicans will help working families to keep more of what they earn; expand the options for their children’s education; protect and improve their healthcare; encourage private businesses to create more jobs; restore fiscal responsibility to government; and make all of us safer from domestic and foreign threats.

Our challenge lies not only in defeating Democrats, but also in uniting around a message that solidifies our ranks and attracts new adherents to our cause. We have to listen to what Americans are telling us about their aspirations, and then translate that message into proposals for meaningful action squarely grounded on the values for which we Republicans have always stood.

We are united by our faith in the power and ingenuity of the individual to build a nation through hard work, personal responsibility, and self-discipline. That is the sacred ground upon which our Republican Party was built. For the sake of all Americans, it is the ground we must reclaim.

We Republicans can get some perspective on our recent problems by looking back at one of our finest hours: from 1981 to 1989, conservatism made real progress in rolling back the relentless advance of liberalism. Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980, the president’s warm and easy-going style, and his common- sense delivery of conservative wisdom changed everything. Ronald Reagan made it cool to be a Republican — at least for a time.

The Reagan victory was the culmination of a conservative rise that began in the ashes of a crushing defeat decades before. Throughout the 1980s, President Reagan and Republicans in Congress, along with some conservative Democrats, implemented a conservative agenda that had been groomed for twenty years: lowering taxes; cutting back the influence of government in personal life and private enterprise; promoting free markets over crippling regulation; standing up for individual rights and human rights over authoritarian repression; and the greatest victory of all, challenging the Soviet Union and winning the Cold War.

President Reagan made America and the world safer, more prosperous, and freer. This isn’t a matter of opinion but a matter of fact by any measure: he set the stage for the transformation of formerly Communist police states into capitalist democracies; grew our gross domestic product; raised employment; reduced inflation; and much more. Few deny this anymore, and those who do might as well deny the sunrise.

But what many often forget is that President Reagan did what he did for all Americans and not for the elevation of the Republican Party. Moreover, he did it with the support of many Democrats in Congress — the so-called “Boll Weevils” — who recognized that their beliefs were much closer to Reagan’s traditional Americanism than to those of their own increasingly left-leaning party. Those who knew the president would tell you this kind of inclusiveness and outreach was entirely in his character. He even had a sign on his desk that read:




He employed Republican principles, but he didn’t preach to the public about the wonders of being a Republican. Instead, he spoke consistently about common sense, about how to fix the problems that typical Americans faced every day, and about his concern for families and individuals. He didn’t attempt to “sell” people into some “club” called Republicanism. He offered solutions to real-world problems, and those solutions were founded in rock-solid principle.

So how did the Republican Party benefit from Reagan?

That’s easy. People knew their president was a Republican, and they embraced the Republican label, not because of what Reagan-era Republicans said, but because of what they did. Simple as that.

After Reagan’s presidency, however, our fortunes declined. Many post-Reagan Republican leaders were not nearly as confident in or committed to conservative principles, and not nearly as capable as Reagan was of living without the validation of the media and the chattering classes. Less than two years after Reagan left office, a Republican president raised taxes. And our party — and nation — paid a high price: in 1992, the American people voted to replace President George H. W. Bush with Bill Clinton, beginning only the second Democratic administration in twenty-four years. Despite the ensuing success of Congressmen Newt Gingrich’s and Dick Armey’s Contract with America — with which they captured fifty-four seats in the House of Representatives and a Republican majority for the first time in more than half a century — many Republicans perversely wanted to emulate Clinton’s electoral success by triangulating and running as “moderates.” They thought the key to winning elections was to run on watered-down conservatism.

So long was Reagan’s shadow that seven years after the end of Reagan’s term, President Clinton was forced to declare before Congress that “the era of big government is over.” Yet four years later, many conservative leaders replied with, “Not yet.” We would go along with big government, but we would just turn its priorities a little more toward free markets — and we would apologize for doing even that. Throughout the 2000s, we acquiesced to “bridges to nowhere,” a return to deficits and expanding debt, growing government influence in healthcare, and the list goes on.

It didn’t have to be this way. If you took what the Republican Congress did during President Clinton’s tenure and applied that to the 2000s — holding the line on taxes, real reform of the safety net, balancing the budget — then recent Republican history would have been quite different.

Excerpted from "Right Now," by Michael Steele. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from Regnery Publishing.