July 27, 1995 | Lecture on Political Thought

Federalism on the Hudson: The Empire State Strikes Back

I want to begin by saying how much I've looked forward to coming here today. The reason has to do with Heritage, with all of you, and the importance of ideas in politics.

I'm one of those, for example, who can remember a time in the 1960s when there was very little opposition to a Republican President's plan for something called the Family Assistance Plan, a program that even its strongest supporters now admit would have made the current welfare catastrophe even worse, perhaps even an insoluble one. But in those days, one young congressional staffer saw the danger and, virtually singlehandedly, marshalled arguments against the plan after it passed the House by a two-to-one vote -- arguments that eventually translated into "nay" votes on the floor of the Senate. The power of that young conservative's well-marshalled arguments saved the nation from a serious social policy mistake, but it also led to something even more fortuitous and important. You see, when Ed Feulner saw the effect that his ideas could have even on Capitol Hill, it led to another idea: the idea of this place, the idea of Heritage.

Some of us who were young conservatives back in those days remember the title of a book by Richard Weaver: Ideas Have Consequences. Twenty-five years or so later, we see evidence of how right Weaver was in the consequences of Ed Feulner's idea of Heritage. This building and lecture hall in the heart of Capitol Hill are the physical evidence. There's also Heritage's generous endowment. But even more impressive is Heritage's history, its record not only of stopping bad legislation, but developing and disseminating the ideas that have led to the current conservative counterrevolution in public policy. When that revolution began in 1981, Heritage electrified this city with its blueprint, Mandate for Leadership, one that Ronald Reagan embraced and one that, as you continually updated it, made Heritage a foremost idea bank of the conservative revolution.

So Heritage is many things: a think tank, a government in exile, ground control for conservatives and the Republican Party. But I also want you to know that for those of us who were part of a silent revolution going on outside of Washington and beyond the Beltway, it was also a beacon from the policy mountaintop. For a small-town mayor, state assemblyman, and senator named George Pataki, and for others like me, you were a reminder of how vigorous and exciting conservative ideas could be; for us, you were an inspiration to keep fighting for those ideas at the state and local level.

And this brings us to my first point today. Last fall in New York State, the state many regard as the most liberal state in the country, an icon of liberalism fell. News of the defeat of Mario Cuomo, the foremost liberal spokesman in America, was considered by many people in and out of Washington just too good to be true. Mario Cuomo's defeat signalled the death of liberalism. After all, it wasn't Mario Cuomo who was defeated; it was his philosophy of more government, more spending, and more taxes. I am here today to say that this victory was not just a victory for George Pataki. The defeat of Mario Cuomo and his liberal policies is a victory for all of us. On behalf of the people of the state of New York, I thank you for your tremendous help in bringing about this change.

I was glad we could run the kind of political campaign we did, one that emphasized the stark differences between liberals and conservatives, that made it clear one side was for less spending, lower taxes, and more growth while the other side was for more spending, higher taxes, and more government dependency. Our opponents believed in control and regulation and redistribution of wealth by government elites. We believed in individual freedom and personal responsibility and the unbounded riches only a free and creative people can create.

We didn't, however, just make these points or put forward these issues; we had specific policy recommendations and programs to back them up. We had an innovative, carefully prepared tax-cut plan. When it came to spending and budget proposals, we called for specific reforms. On programs like Medicaid, the help of my running mate Betsy McCaughey, an expert on health care and a former think-tanker herself, was invaluable. In the same manner, we put forward not just rhetoric, but specifics about reforming our failed welfare and criminal justice systems.

I believe that having this kind of substance and content to our campaign was crucial to its success. But no one knows better than I that implementing conservative policy alternatives in a state where liberal policies were perpetuated for decades isn't done easily or overnight. Throughout this process, you at Heritage have been the leaders. I'm particularly proud of the New Yorkers -- Lew Lehrman, Jack Kemp, Bill Simon, Midge Decter, and Dusty Rhodes -- who have had a role in your success.

And how could I not thank my good friend, Senator Al D'Amato, who is one of the leaders in the fight to control government spending, reduce regulation, and make our people safer in their homes and neighborhoods?

These great New Yorkers emphasize my point. Our victory in New York state and over Mario Cuomo last November was not just a victory of politics; it was a victory of ideas, our shared ideas. It was not just the work of candidates and their campaign supporters; it was the work of those who have made policy alternatives to the statist ideas of elitist liberals credible. This has been your work. So I'm here today for a simple reason: to congratulate you on that work, to thank you for it, and to urge you, by all means, to keep it up.

I want to bring you up to date on what we have managed to achieve during the past six months in New York as we rolled back failed liberal policies and replaced them with fresh and promising alternatives. Before I do that, though, let me make just one additional personal note on the long road we have walked together overturning failures of liberalism.

You know, Ed Feulner used to say he could remember when the whole conservative movement could fit in a phone booth. And I know your Vice President for Government Relations, Kate Walsh O'Beirne, who got her start in politics working in Jim Buckley's 1970 campaign, knows the truth of that statement.

Believe me, so do I. I remember as a teenager my Hungarian relatives as they watched the flickering black and white TV images of the Soviet army crushing freedom on the streets of Budapest. I remember in those days how we anti-communists wondered whether the world would ever wake to the menace of Soviet totalitarianism and the evil empire. And I remember, too, as a college student the struggles of young Republicans with older party leaders who in places like Connecticut and New York were so deeply and routinely liberal. I can also remember election night 1964 -- the desolation we felt. A desolation, however, that eventually turned to determination as we started wearing buttons that read: "26 million Americans can't be wrong."

They weren't, of course, and it was a good start. Since that time we've seen what the great conservative historian Eric Voegelin called the "variegation" and "differentiation" of conservative ideas. All that means, really, is the description of a process by which a few seminal ideas get diversified in a culture -- in Wisconsin, in New Jersey, even in "Taxachusetts."

But there was always that one holdout, that last bastion of liberalism and a home for true believers. In a state like New York, liberals just didn't see the coercive side of government as we did, and they couldn't understand one of history's most solemn lessons: that government's appetite for power, unless carefully watched and checked, makes it the greatest of institutional threats to personal freedom and economic progress. Such liberals honestly believed government was some great benevolent force that, in the hands of an enlightened elite (namely themselves), could be just as nurturing and helpful to society as the family. Mario Cuomo actually made this comparison, by the way, at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, and Senator Paul Laxalt said it all when he responded at the Republican convention: "If you believe Mario Cuomo when he says government is just like family, just like Mom and Pop, ask yourselves this one question: When's the last time all the IRS wanted from you was a kiss and a hug?"

What a price New York had to pay for all the big government, for the decades of liberalism. The Empire State became a leader in taxes, regulatory burden, welfare spending, and crime. We were also right up there at the top in jobs lost and young people moving out of the state.

As a New Yorker, it was hard to watch. I knew my state as a gateway to freedom for millions. I had four grandparents -- Yanos and Elizabeth Pataki, Agnes Lynch, and Matteo Lagna -- come through those gates at Ellis Island. Three of them could not even speak or read English when they got their first job. All they had was their own belief in a better future for themselves and for their children. But something else, too: the opportunity that America and New York, the Empire State, offered them.

My own life saw even more opportunity and good fortune. The son of a Peekskill mailman, I had a chance to go to schools like Yale, to study law at Columbia, and to make a good living for my family. Maybe you can understand, then, why I got into public service. I wanted to bring back the kind of hope and opportunity that was being lost in the social and economic wreckage left by decades of liberal rule.

In looking at the changes that I knew needed to be brought to New York, I was, of course, looking through a highly personal prism. Those of us who have a philosophical preference for the individual over the collective actually forget that we come to our common ideas through a unique set of individual experiences. So, in discussing the changes that have come to New York, I hope you will permit me today to describe them by using the prism through which I saw them during the campaign and my first six months in office: a prism of hope, a prism of economic and educational opportunity fostered by strong communities and families.

In seeking the restoration of New York as a breeding ground of hope and opportunity, that last word -- families -- has always loomed large in my mind. In the days of hope and opportunity, we had tremendously strong families; my parents were there, brother, cousins, aunts and uncles, all of us helping and caring for each other. What a contrast that is to the family instability and the outright social mayhem fostered by intrusive government and a state welfare system that must have been the worst in the nation.

I say "must have been" because we have now dramatically changed that failed welfare system. I can't say it was an easy fight in the legislature. But we did, and here's what we've achieved so far:

  • First, workfare is now a reality in New York. Able-bodied recipients who refuse to work won't get welfare.
  • Second, learnfare is also a reality. This means that if you're on welfare and you're not making sure your children get to school, you face sharply reduced benefits.
  • Third, pregnant teenagers no longer can set up welfare apartments. They're now required to stay at home.
  • Fourth, we've attacked welfare migration and removed the incentive to move to New York in order to receive welfare benefits.
  • And fifth, there's a serious crackdown on fraud. This means special fraud task forces, computer checks, and the use of promising techniques like finger imaging.

Unlike liberals, who believe government programs can be "value-neutral," we know all human actions, and especially the corporate actions of government, have a normative content, that they send a strong message. Behind our reforms, then, is a message that is the opposite of that sent by the old welfare system and its cycle of dependency. This new message reaffirms our common belief in the importance of keeping families intact, in values like hard work and individual responsibility, and in the sense of pride and self-worth to which every human being is entitled.

A second element in the restoration of New York's greatness and its recovery from years of liberal rule is that of strong communities. When I was growing up, the idea of parks ruled by thugs, or the idea of parents afraid to send their kids to the corner store, or even school -- all this was unthinkable. That's why in just a few short months we have totally restructured the criminal justice system. Here's what we have accomplished:

  • The death penalty was reinstated after being vetoed for 18 consecutive years.
  • Violent felons can no longer get early release or work release and must serve longer sentences.
  • Repeat violent felons can no longer get out on parole.
  • Repeat violent felons now face new tough sentencing laws that require them to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. In the past, they could get away with serving less than half.
  • We've made great strides in cracking down on other criminal offenses. I will sign a bill that will allow communities to be notified when sex offenders are released into their neighborhoods -- also known as Megan's law. I have also tackled organized crime in places like the Javits Convention Center in New York City, where it has had a frightening influence.

We're being tough and we're being smart. We've made it possible for nonviolent drug offenders, with the consent of the judge and prosecutor, to get into treatment rather than be sent for a full-time tutorial in criminality in prisons like Attica.

The third area of our reform efforts is the one you've probably heard the most about: restoring jobs and economic opportunity to New York. Here are the results: Take reducing the size of government. For the first time in fifty years -- for the first time since World War II and Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak --New York's general fund will spend less than the year before. And we're tackling the tough ones, reforming programs that need it the most. In Medicaid, for instance, we're bringing down costs with anti-fraud SWAT teams and managed care alternatives.

Even more startling for what some call the most liberal state in the Union, we cut income taxes by 25 percent.

And we've abolished or reduced other taxes, including container taxes, beer taxes, estate taxes, the petroleum business tax, pari-mutuel taxes, and the real property gains tax.

I can't stress how vital these reforms are. During the most recent national recession, New York lost 400,000 jobs. Even as the recovery began in April 1991 and the rest of the country was gaining jobs, we continued to lose jobs -- 150,000 of them. It's not just a matter of dollars and cents; it's the message government sends to employers and businesses. I believe the message we are now sending is business-friendly, one that says New York understands that higher taxes and more spending mean fewer jobs and less growth.

By the way, you'd be amazed at how quickly word gets around. In just the past few months, the CEOs of Kodak and IBM have announced they would keep and expand large parts of their operations and thousands of jobs in New York because of the recent changes in the state's attitude. A few weeks ago, Pepsi announced plans for a $10 million expansion in the Hudson Valley. And just yesterday, Ball Incorporated announced plans to build a new manufacturing plant in central New York. And though we may not know about them right now, I think there are many more businesses that are currently making the same decision.

The fourth and final area of concentrated reform has been restoring and expanding educational opportunity. The New York I grew up in was famous for the excellence of its school system. But today, when people think of New York schools, they think too often of huge union salaries, administrative and bureaucratic overhead, low test scores, and classroom disruption.

I remember a few years ago when my predecessor called an education summit. Everybody came: the teacher unions, administrators, boards of education, as well as advocacy and special-interest groups of every description. Only two groups were left out: parents and students. And that's been the problem: The attempt to micromanage education from Albany has meant an education system that too often serves the purposes of bureaucrats and special-interest groups, but not parents and students.

We've moved to reverse this trend. We've made bureaucracy a focus of the education debate. I've taken on the state Board of Regents and called for its abolition. I've reduced the size of the state's education bureaucracy, and I've moved to centralize accountability in the education system with one person -- the governor.

Now, in education as in the other three areas, there is much more to talk about. For the moment, though, I want to suggest an overall point. In seeking to renew New York, in restoring the economic and educational opportunity that made our state a magnet of hope and freedom for millions in the past, we are carrying the conservative revolution of ideas into one of the last liberal states in the Union. The new policies we're instituting overthrow all the unworkable liberal abstractions of the past. We are seeking to empower the people instead of elite micromanagers in government. And rather than treat the poor or disadvantaged as failures, we want to build their pride and self-sufficiency.

So against years of failed liberal policies, the Empire State is striking back: striking back with reforms that will restore opportunity and give present-day New Yorkers and their children the same chance to achieve the American dream. Let me also draw from the experience of the past six months three specific lessons that may be helpful in bringing dramatic change and reform to other levels of government.

You know, when I first proposed real spending cuts and a 25 percent income-tax cut, these ideas were dismissed as unrealistic campaign gimmicks. And that's why it's hard to describe the sense of "the world turned upside down" I had as I sat in my office not long ago. I was listening to the legislative debate, and I heard Democrat after Democrat in the State Assembly stand up, denounce my budget and my tax cut, and then vote for them anyway. In a state where they were proud to increase taxes and increase spending year after year, lawmakers in 1995 had no choice but to do the opposite. They knew where the people stood. They knew what the people wanted. And it was change.

And that brings me to the first important lesson: Seek no incremental change. Pursuing only half-steps takes the focus off liberalism's sweeping failure and deprives us of the larger philosophical and practical arguments that can carry the public debate. So our policies have to be up to our rhetoric. We should remember what Napoleon said to one of his generals: "If you mean to take Vienna, take Vienna."

You must stick to your principles. But it's important to keep the door open to opponents as well as to friends and allies. It's also important to disagree civilly and courteously. But let's not be afraid of the disagreement and controversy. As Margaret Thatcher says, controversy is good; it moves your agenda forward.

I'm also reminded here of a story told about Jack Kennedy when he was seeking the Democratic nomination for President. Many old-line party types thought him far too young for the job, and one of them, Harry Truman, expressed himself in his usual colorful language on the subject. Asked, after the Democratic convention in 1960, how he was ever going to make up with former President Truman, Senator Kennedy said simply: "Well, I suppose President Truman will apologize for calling me an SOB and I will apologize for being one."

There's a lesson here. The American political system is built for robust debate; it's flexible enough to be both adversarial and collegial. Take advantage of both, but, most of all, don't be afraid of being adversarial when core principles and goals are at stake.

And the key to sticking to principle is one that gives conservative reformers an edge every time over the entrenched interests and Beltway mentality in places like Albany and Washington. Although it's my last point, it's also one you've heard before. In fact, at a dinner to kick off your first endowment drive back in 1983, President Reagan said: "Many people in the power structure of our capital think that appealing to someone's narrow self-interest is the best way to appeal to the American people as a whole, and that's where they're wrong. When the American people go to the polls, when they speak out on the issues of the day, they know how high the stakes are. They know the future of freedom depends not on what's `in it for me' but on the ethic of what's good for the country, what will serve and protect freedom."

President Reagan went on to say that we must remember that the American people do not want political leadership that serves the special interests, but leadership that offers hope and a vision of the future. He reminded us that issues and ideas really do count. They count because the American people have rejected what liberalism has become, and they have recognized and embraced the conservative message whenever it has been coherently and consistently presented.

Entrenched liberal interests can't see this because they tend to project their own obsession with self-interest on the people as a whole. They also don't realize that though the people know less about the intricacies of government than bureaucrats or elitist micromanagers, the people do know better about both what and how government is doing. And that's the point we need to keep in mind: that our system of government is based on the revolutionary belief of the American Founders in what they called "popular government," the idea that the people as a whole know better than any group of elites.

We believe in the people. We know what they can achieve and accomplish. We should also remember that people expect and are entitled to leadership. And leadership means that when we are embattled against entrenched interests, we must take the time to turn to the people, to explain the situation and then ask their help and support. That's what we did in New York. When the entrenched interests fought the budget and my tax cuts, when they tried to block hope and opportunity, we took our message to the people.

The larger historical record is clear about what happens when American leaders go to the people. That night President Reagan spoke to you, he predicted the eventual triumph of the West in the Cold War. But in doing so he cited the words of Joseph Warren, a Boston doctor who would be remembered as one of the great American Founders had his life not been cut short by a bullet on Bunker Hill. Not long before that battle, Dr. Warren told a Boston crowd: "Our country is in danger but not to be despaired of. On you depends the fortunes of America. You are to decide that important question on which rests the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves."

The record is clear: Just as they did in 1776, the Americans of our own time have acted worthy of freedom, worthy of their heritage, worthy of themselves. And now that America and the conservative revolution have brought down a totalitarian empire and ended the Cold War, we are turning to problems left too long neglected at home. Today, then, in our cities and states a great conservative revolution and reaffirmation is underway. I'm proud to be part of that effort and proud to tell you that New York is now at the forefront of this revolutionary reaffirmation of growth and hope, opportunity and freedom.

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