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A Heritage of Conservative Victories

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Ask a conservative to name landmark dates in political history, and Jan. 20, 1981 (President Reagan’s inauguration) would be high on the list. So would Nov. 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall fell, and Dec. 25, 1991, when the Soviet Union formally dissolved.

How about Feb. 16, 1973? It was on that day, 35 years ago this month, that The Heritage Foundation first opened its doors.

Including that date may seem biased, considering that I’m Heritage’s president. But even outsiders find it difficult to deny this think tank’s influence. Ask The New York Times, which once called us “the most aggressive and disciplined of the conservative idea factories.” Or the academic researchers who recently selected Heritage as one of 12 “Forces for Good” in the non-profit world.

Of course, a birthday is a time to reflect and to celebrate accomplishments -- and The Heritage Foundation has helped propel the conservative movement to many.

During the 1970s, for instance, the U.S. was fighting a long Cold War with the Soviet Union, and victory seemed far from certain. Some Americans went so far as to say that a decline in power was inevitable -- and irreversible.

Heritage disagreed. We published “Mandate for Leadership,” explaining how to rebuild American military and economic power. President Reagan read it. He gave it to his cabinet members. And he acted on it. Within a decade, the Iron Curtain fell, and former satellite states claimed their freedom.

Missile defense, another policy long championed by Heritage, is advancing. Poland recently agreed to allow the U.S. to base missile interceptors on its territory. The military has also conducted successful interceptor tests over the Pacific Ocean, and installed defensive weapons in California and Alaska. The system is far from complete. But Americans are safer from missile attack than they’ve ever been.

On the domestic front, there’s welfare reform.

By 1996, our country was 30 years into a failed “War on Poverty.” Despite trillions of dollars in spending, the number of people living in poverty was unchanged.

Heritage researchers proposed a different path: Reward work; encourage families to stay together, and put a reasonable limit on how long people may receive public assistance. These reforms worked. Millions of people left the welfare rolls and landed jobs. Others entered training programs or finished their education.

Marriage is critical, too. As Heritage’s Center for Data Analysis demonstrated a few years ago, “In general, a 10 percent increase in marriage among poor single mothers would reduce child poverty within that group by 7 percentage points.” A simple walk down the aisle is more effective at reducing poverty than dozens of expensive bureaucratic initiatives.

Of course, conservatives have endured setbacks.

We’re still trying to reform Social Security so that workers can control their own investments. And we must fix Medicare before it swallows most of the federal budget. Creating a free market for health insurance would be an excellent start.

Finally, we must convince lawmakers to cut spending. The federal budget is out of control, and we must make some difficult decisions today so we’ll be able to afford “safety net” programs down the road. Eliminating earmarks would be a solid step.

Changing the direction of the country is like changing the direction of a ship -- we have to push the wheel hard, for a long time, before we see any changes. The Heritage Foundation is dedicated to doing just that. Indeed, our official mission is to “build an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity and civil society flourish.” And our ongoing “Leadership for America” campaign is helping us reach that goal.

In the early 1980s, the Soviet newspaper Pravda admitted that “in a matter of just 10 years, The Heritage Foundation has covered a mind-boggling distance.” That helps explain why the original Pravda isn’t around to wish us a happy 35th. Too bad, because we believe our best days are still ahead.

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