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January 10, 2013

Conservative Ideas Need a New Message

By

The U.S. Senate reached an all-time low — a hard mark to achieve — last week as I said my goodbyes to rejoin the real world. The “fiscal cliff” theatrics ended with a predictable non-solution that raised taxes on all U.S. workers and added more weight to the millstone the federal government has hung around our necks.

A day after that “achievement,” I left Congress and moved across the street to the Heritage Foundation, where the mission is to formulate and promote conservative ideas. It is from Heritage — of which I will become president in April — that I aim to take this message directly to the American people. Why? Because the federal government will not stop spending, borrowing and growing our debt until the American people force it to stop.

Conservative ideas work. Numerous states are demonstrating that low taxes, right-to-work laws, school choice, energy development and other common-sense policies improve the lives of everyone. Conversely, progressive central planning has failed throughout history and is still failing today.

The right ideas have the power to change the course of America, which is why the place to launch a conservative revival is the Heritage Foundation. It used to be said that Willie Mays’s glove was where triples went to die. Well, Congress has become the place where good ideas go to die. In contrast, think tanks such as Heritage use objective analysis to discover why ideas work or don’t.

This is how the foundation helped pioneer welfare reform. A Heritage scholar was a primary architect of the 1996 welfare law that President Bill Clinton was eventually forced to sign after vetoing it twice — a law that later, ironically, became a hallmark of his presidency.

Heritage was also the early promoter of missile defense and the belief that you could hit a bullet with a bullet, which proved so useful in defending Israel just two months ago.

Unfortunately, welfare reform and missile defense have something in common beyond Heritage’s intellectual paternity. They both have been gutted by President Obama. Always faint-hearted about missile defense, the president in his first year dismantled our programs in Poland and the Czech Republic. He disabled welfare reform last year, when he took away the work requirements that were at the heart of that law’s success.

How could the president get away with hobbling two successful programs with barely a peep from the media or backlash from the millions of Americans whose lives are made better and more secure by these initiatives? That’s a question and a challenge I take very personally. After spending my professional career in research, advertising and marketing, I find it unthinkable that American voters are not demanding the ideas and policies that will improve their lives and brighten their future.

One lesson I learned in marketing is that, for consumers and voters, perception is reality.

November’s election results and exit polls suggest that a majority of Americans agree that government does too much yet still voted for more of it. The election taught conservatives that we can no longer entrust political parties to carry our message.

We must take our case to the people ourselves, and we must start where all good marketing starts: with research. Conservative policies have proved their worth time and time again. If we’re not communicating in a way that makes that clear, we are doing a disservice to our fellow citizens. We need to test the market and our message to communicate more effectively.

That’s why Heritage will start this year to help the conservative movement understand how Americans from all walks of life perceive public policy issues and how to communicate conservative ideas and solutions.

This research project into current public perceptions and how we change them will assist in the resurgence of the conservative movement in America.

After spending 14 years in Congress, I know that not many politicians in Washington show the courage displayed by conservative leaders at the state level — leaders like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who pushed through necessary reforms in the face of strong opposition. Washington politicians usually refuse to lead a policy debate unless they are assured that a majority of Americans support that policy.

As conservative icon Milton Friedman said: “The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless it is politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing either.”

This is the kind of climate-change talk I like. I look forward to the years ahead.

-Sen. DeMint is the president-elect at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Washington Post.

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