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March 22, 2013

Rebuilding a Land of Opportunity

By

President Obama and Congress will not solve America’s problems unless the people force them to. Washington is America’s problem. We are the solution.

America remains a conservative nation. But the people crave leadership — champions who will stand up to the progressives, take on the liberal media and push back against the Republican leadership when they go wobbly. They are tired of politicians. They want leaders of genuine conviction and passion, willing to take a principled stand.

We saw an example of this quite recently. Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster demonstrated that one person with the courage of his convictions can truly inspire the American people — including young people, women and minorities.

That’s good news for the conservative movement.

As we move ahead, we must remember that there is a distinction between the Republican Party and the conservative movement. National Republican leaders have not advanced a conservative agenda for almost 20 years.

Not since the first few years of the Republican revolution in the 1990s — when welfare reform and a balanced budget were passed — have congressional Republicans seriously championed conservative ideas. By the time I arrived in the House in 1998, my party was increasing spending and handing out earmarks like candy.

The spending binge continued. By 2006, Americans had seen enough, and Republicans lost the majority in both houses. This was not a rejection of conservative policies. It was a rejection of unprincipled governance.

In 2008, things got even worse as Republicans helped pass bailouts for big banks on Wall Street, and for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Barack Obama was elected, and Republicans lost even more seats in Congress.

It wasn’t long before the far-left policies of Mr. Obama and a rudderless GOP finally woke Americans from their apathy. Conservatives, libertarians, independents and even recovering liberals came together in groups called Tea Parties all across the country. They had a unified, simple message: “Stop the spending, borrowing, bailouts and government takeovers — and restore constitutional, limited government.”

The majority of Americans agreed with these ideas. This was the opportunity for Republicans to embrace the movement and build that big tent our leaders have been talking about for years. Instead, the national Republican leadership rejected the Tea Party and joined the liberal media in vilifying it.

Many Republican candidates, though, did embrace the Tea Party ideas. In 2010, they helped the GOP retake the House and gain seats in the Senate.

Yet in 2012, with the presidency on the line, national Republican leadership rejected the lessons of 2010 and went back to the old way of campaigning — relying on big-budget, negative TV rather than painting a bold, positive vision of a better America.

There are important lessons to draw from that disappointing campaign. First: Conservatives need to take control of the message. Our ideas don’t need high-priced spinmeisters to massage and doll them up — just plain-spoken champions who have the courage of their convictions.

We don’t need the bells and whistles, because our ideas work. They’ve been proved in states such as Tennessee, where the income tax was eliminated and the economy boomed. We’ve seen states such as North Dakota open their energy resources to development and create tens of thousands of new, well-paying jobs. We’ve seen states such as Texas pass tort reforms that encouraged doctors to move in — improving health care and lowering costs for everyone.

We also know that liberal policies fail. Look at Greece and Cyprus. Look at California and Illinois. Look at Detroit. Controlled by liberals for more than 50 years, Detroit is now bankrupt. Its population has shrunk by more than half. Only 7 percent of eighth-graders read at grade level. Unemployment for Hispanics and blacks is near 40 percent.

Liberal policies destroy lives and bankrupt cities, states and nations. Conservative policies work for everyone.

Just ask Joe Kelley, a single father in Washington, about school choice. He calls the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program a “blessing” for his children. Trapped in the public school system, his son Rashawn was three years behind where he should have been by fifth grade. Worse, the school was so bad, he recalls, that “eight police officers patrolled it every day, yet kids were still scared of getting jumped.”

But an Opportunity Scholarship allowed Rashawn to switch to a private school. Within two years, he had caught up to grade level. Today, he is pursuing a college degree.

There are so many more Rashawns out there who need our help. Conservative policies can benefit all Americans. That’s why conservatives cannot rest until every American can reach the ladder of opportunity and climb as high as they can dream.

We must take our message of freedom and opportunity for all and connect with every neighborhood in America. We can and must make our ideas so winsome to the American people that they become irresistible to politicians, no matter what their party.

-Jim DeMint, a former senator from South Carolina, is president-elect of the Heritage Foundation. This column is drawn from his remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week.

First appeared in The Washington Times.

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