OXON HILL, Md. -- The first "people" I recognized on arriving at last week's Conservative Political Action Committee gathering just outside Washington were two "stormtroopers" and a Wookiee from the 1977 film "Star Wars."
Some of the speeches also expressed sentiments from the past, though not as cleverly as those in costume: Obama is a bad president, even a bad man. America looks weak before the world. Government is too big and taxes too high. "The Force" seemed to have left the building, or perhaps it never arrived.
Perhaps the most interesting speaker was the outgoing governor of Texas, Rick Perry, who has experienced a minor makeover. Those dark-rimmed glasses he now wears give him a more serious appearance. Perry also seems to have taken a crash course in public speaking because he revealed a passion that was lacking in his brief 2012 presidential campaign.
Perry did something else which even The Washington Post took note of, though not as many delegates did. He appeared on a panel to discuss prison reform. "Tough on crime" has long been a conservative red meat issue and Perry wanted people to know that being tough on crime could also mean "smart on crime." He's talking alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders and rehabilitation, more than punishment. In a state that ranks first in executions, Perry has become an advocate for reforming the criminal justice system.
That's a position that won't get him many standing ovations, but it is a positive alternative to the angry and negative image projected by too many conservatives.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was right to urge his fellow Republicans to "start talking about what we're for and not what we're against."
A bigger issue waiting to be seized by Republicans is education reform. In New York, a battle has erupted between Governor Andrew Cuomo, a sudden proponent of at least partial school choice when it comes to charter schools, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has pledged to close charter schools and return mostly poor and minority children who are succeeding in them to failing public schools.
In an opinion essay for The Daily Messenger newspaper, Cuomo sounded like a Republican: "...education is not about the districts and not about the pensions and not about the unions and not about the lobbyists and not about the PR firms -- education is about the students, and the students come first."
He added: "We know that too many public schools are failing. Over 200 failing schools -- 6 percent grade level for reading, 5 percent grade level for math. We need new ideas. ... The education industry has said the same thing for decades: more money, and more money, and more money, and it will change. We spend more money per pupil than any state in the nation; we're number 32 in results. It's not just about putting more money in the public school system, it's trying something new and that's what charter schools are all about."
Rescuing children has always been a political issue for Democrats, but they aren't being rescued. Too many are drowning in failed, monopolistic government schools. Conservatives and Republicans should be riding to their rescue, saying something like this: "It is a form of child abuse to deny any child a decent education. Education is a child's ticket to the future, but too many liberal Democrats have stamped those tickets 'invalid' by forcing them to remain in schools where their chances of succeeding are greatly diminished."
If conservatives really want to attract more minority voters they will help their kids. It's positive, it's optimistic, and it will work.
During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy repeatedly said: "We can do better." So can conservatives. So can Republicans. So can America. Even a Wookiee might agree.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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