We live in a time of unprecedented conservative power in the United States. For the last decade, Republicans have controlled both houses of Congress. For 17 of the past 25 years we have controlled the White House. And for the last four-and-a-half years we have controlled both the legislative and executive branches of government.
It has been a period marked by achievements, at home and abroad. Welfare has been reformed and millions of families have found the freedom of work and home ownership. Taxes have been reduced, and despite the recession, 9/11, intense global competition and nature’s fury, the economy is growing. And democracy is spreading throughout the world as free peoples are turning once-outlaw regimes into new allies.
Yet after a decade of Republican control in Washington, we have not reduced the size of government, there is no balanced budget amendment, and pork-barrel and self-interest politics have grown. Special interest groups haven’t been defeated or tamed, they are thriving.
Now is the time for midcourse corrections to ensure the success of the conservative movement, as well as the American experiment. With that mission in mind, I would like to make a few suggestions of my own.
Intellectual conservatism was once defined by two clear goals - the defeat of communism and the reduction in the size, scope and sweep of government. There are three observations I’d like to make about this conservatism.
First, it was conservatism with a purpose. The goal of consigning communism to the ash heap of history was to eliminate oppression, increase liberty, and spread democracy. Similarly, limiting government’s scope wasn’t just about making the budget smaller or closing some departments, it was about the expansion of the unlimited potential of people.
Second, it was conservatism with definable objectives. We could tell whether or not communism was eliminated and government reduced.
Third, it was conservatism of hope. For many decades, the Cold War seemed to grow hotter while America’s morale fell lower. But we never gave up. We never stopped believing in the rightness of our cause.
While purpose, objective and hope have been the hallmarks of conservatism’s past, they also should be the defining characteristics of conservatism’s future. What I call “Compassionate Conservatism” has something unique to offer to the shaping of our future.
Compassionate Conservatism relies on healthy families, freedom of faith, a vibrant civil society, a proper understanding of the individual and a focused government to achieve noble purposes through definable objectives which offers hope to all.
There are four cornerstones to compassionate conservatism. First, compassionate conservatism is founded on the family because the family is the foundation of a healthy civil society. Families set standards and demand that their children live up to them. Strong families are grounded in a code of moral conduct, a shared faith, plus judicious use of the age-old sanctions of shame and stigma. Families teach us about the essential democratic virtue of selflessness - the mantra of the popular culture, “if it feels good do it,” just doesn’t wash in a family.
Second, Compassionate Conservatism believes in the transformative power of faith and the integral role of charities, houses of worship, and other civil institutions. If government is to be effective, these institutions must be respected and nurtured rather than overpowered or effectively controlled by government. They instill values and bind us together in a common cause. These bonds build trust, which is the grease that makes the gears of society run without friction.
Third, Compassionate Conservatism is founded on an inviolable belief in humanity’s inherent dignity. Respecting the sanctity of each life means that abortion, which ends life at its beginning, and euthanasia, which ends life before it reaches its natural end, undermine human dignity. Respecting life means that ending genocide, international sex trafficking and the oppression of minority groups, and promoting the respect for religious freedom around the world will always be top priorities.
Fourth, Compassionate Conservatism targets the poor and hurting for help, whether they are across the street or across an ocean. To this end, Senate Republicans have developed a domestic anti-poverty agenda, which respects the critical roles of work, investment and neighborhoods in empowering families in need.
Just as Katrina has seared American poverty into our moral consciousness, AIDS has seared Africa into our moral vision. Caring for the sick and dying in Africa now is morally right, as well as geopolitically prudent; if we don’t help, someone else will and that someone else may not be friendly to our interests. We need to embrace the challenge to dedicate a larger percentage of our GDP to foreign aid, while encouraging more international trade with developing countries. History will judge us not by what we say but what we do.
Yes, this agenda will require a role for government that some conservatives find disquieting. But that is a discomfort worth confronting.
Yes, it means that politicians like me have to start speaking some hard truths and making some bold decisions.
We are going to have to look at everything from pork, to entitlements, and be decisive about changing the role of government in our lives. That effort includes not only cutting old, tired programs, but also advancing new initiatives like the CARE Act, a bold package of expanded charitable-giving incentives that supports faith-based and community organizations.
A lesson from Lady Thatcher and President Reagan – we must never fail to hope. Hope is what allowed Reagan and Thatcher to see that a nuclear freeze was folly, that communism was corrupt and that freedom would triumph.
Conservatism is based upon the idea of preserving the good in our society, adding to it the wisdom of experience coupled with the courage and optimism of a new generation. This formula inspired Reagan and Thatcher to hope, and to work together to change the world. Let us build upon their example to be a beacon of hope in this troubled world.
Adapted from a speech to the Heritage Foundation’s First International Conservative Conference on Social Justice, 9/27/05