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Winning the Argument, and then the Vote

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

Last week, I attended a Georgia Public Policy Foundation lunch featuring Arthur Brooks, president of American Enterprise Institute. Arthur and I met a few years ago in Atlanta after he gave a speech based on his 2006 book, "Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism." He's one of the brightest guys in the areas of policy analysis, data and language, and I listen to him every chance I get.

It turns out that, according to Brooks' research, those who give to others are more likely to be conservative and more likely to be happy. Since then, Brooks has published "Gross National Happiness," and "The Battle: How the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's Future."

An unlikely conservative champion, Brooks was raised in Seattle by college professor parents whom he describes as liberal. After teaching music for a while, Brooks earned an economics degree and then a Ph.D. in policy analysis. After working at Georgia State University and Syracuse University, Brooks moved to AEI, where he serves as president of the conservative think tank.

Brooks' background is important because it is nontraditional. His conversion to conservatism reflects his underlying research in behavioral science. He believes free enterprise, freedom of choice and limited government work because the underlying data prove that it does.

Brooks is worth listening to for ideas, approaches to policy arguments, and phrases that are memorable and descriptive. A few years ago, I first heard the comparison phrase "takers or makers" when talking to Brooks. Since then, I have used it numerous times and have heard it used by others even more.

Last week, Brooks' talk focused on the importance of raising the level of the argument against President Obama's policies in the coming 2012 presidential election. If, as a conservative, you believe that we need a policy revolution, the question then becomes: How does one make it happen?

According to Brooks, policy revolutions include four phases: 1) the moral case for change, 2) knocking over things in the way of the policy revolution, 3) proposing real solutions and 4) providing leadership to induce people to make sacrifices for the policy change.

According to Brooks, the moral case for change is hardest.

Margaret Thatcher, the great conservative former prime minister of England, understood this tenet. "First, you win the argument," she said, "then you win the vote." Ronald Reagan was the last American president to clearly articulate the conservative case at this high level.

That's why many conservatives love Reagan.

To win the argument, we have to elevate the argument. It is not about money or economics, it is about doing what is right, what leads to the best human experience; it is about being virtuous and right.

According to Brooks, people look at government policies based on their impact on efficiency, fairness and freedom. Can the government carry out those policies efficiently, are they fair and do they affect our freedom?

Policy arguments should focus not on money and economics, but on our country's virtues. How does policy impact efficiency, fairness and freedom?

The impact on efficiency is the easiest to understand, but often overlooked.

Newt Gingrich, my father and the presidential candidate, recently noted, "American Express pays 0.03 percent in fraud. Medicaid in New York state under federal guidelines pays more than 10 percent of your money in fraud." Clearly this is not efficient.

Fairness can be confusing, as both sides often use the word. "We need a sense of fairness in our tax code," stated Obama.

This requires for the argument to be expanded to include how fairness is defined. Is it fair to provide equal outcomes for everybody? When people believe that effort affects outcomes, then they do not believe it is fair for people to end up in the same place regardless of effort, but believe merit should be rewarded.

According to Brooks, Obama must believe "we don't get rewarded for merit," so a fair tax code to Obama would require those earning more to pay more. The American people believe that our free enterprise system rewards merit, however, and there is virtue in rewarding performance. Therefore Obama's tax argument is wrong for the majority of Americans.

Freedom is the third fundamental argument, and this can be used to argue about estate taxes (we should be free to leave money to our family, our friends, our charity or our cat), as well as gun control (free to bear arms).

The question is: Can conservatives win the argument and therefore the vote in 2012?

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