The following speech was delivered by Jack Hunter at the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, DC, Friday Feb. 11, 2011. The event was sponsored by Young Americans for Liberty.
Considering that we’re at the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference it might be worth reflecting on what it means to be a conservative, at least in the popular sense. After all, the term is not static and let’s face it, throughout most of the last decade being a mainstream conservative pretty much meant one thing—support for the War on Terror. There was little outrage from conservatives when a Republican president doubled the size of government and the national debt, gave us the largest entitlement expansion since Lyndon Johnson in the form of Medicare Plan D, and through “No Child Left Behind” doubled the size of the Department of Education, something Ronald Reagan once pledged to abolish. Under the so-called “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush, a Republican administration that controlled all three branches of government for a significant period of that time delivered virtually nothing recognizably conservative, socially, fiscally or otherwise.
It was always easy for conservatives to say, mostly implicitly but sometimes explicitly, that in a time of war none of this big government stuff matters, but sadly for most of the last decade the only thing that mattered to conservatives was war—the promotion of it and complete devotion to a president willing to wage it. It was a strange dynamic considering that conservatives, by the very nature of their philosophy, are supposed to question government, and yet just a few short years ago the Right would lash out most viciously at anyone who dared question President Bush and his foreign policy. Just ask Ron Paul.
Yes, while a strict constitutionalist like Congressman Paul wasn’t even allowed in the door at the 2008 Republican National Convention, Al Gore’s former running mate Joe Lieberman was given a prime time speaking role. Talk host Sean Hannity would constantly call Lieberman his “favorite Democrat,” and when Hannity wasn’t campaigning for socially liberal Republicans like Rudy Giuliani for president, the former New York mayor could always count on conservative cover from men like evangelical leader Pat Robertson, who endorsed Giuliani for president. So why was there so much conservative love for fairly liberal guys like Lieberman and Giuliani? Because they agreed with Bush’s foreign policy. Why was there so much vitriol for a genuine conservative like Ron Paul? Because he dared to dissent.
Working in talk radio, during the 2008 Republican presidential campaign, conservative critics would often accuse me of being a single issue voter in my support for Ron Paul, with that one issue being foreign policy. But I would tell them that no, in fact it was they who were single issue voters. I would tell them that Ron Paul stood for balanced budgets, seriously limiting government, reducing the debt, strict constitutionalism and he just happened to be right on foreign policy, in my opinion. Why would conservatives, who one would think might believe in balancing budgets, limited government, debt reduction and constitutional principles, reject Ron Paul? That’s easy. Because of foreign policy. Likewise, why would they even contemplate supporting or championing big government Republicans and former Democrats like Giuliani and Lieberman who were virtually worthless when it came to bedrock conservative principles? That’s also easy—their support for Bush’s foreign policy.
Most of the conservative movement and the Republican Party, simply put, were the War Party. It’s all they cared about, whether they will admit it or not, and they drew their battle lines accordingly.
I would like to say today that George W. Bush’s War Party is finally dead, but unfortunately I can’t. What I can say though, confidently, is that it is in retreat.
Now that Iraq and Afghanistan have become Barack Obama’s wars and our current president seems hell bent on growing government to even larger and even more perverse proportions than his predecessor, the conservative movement has suddenly rediscovered the importance of limiting government. I’m not saying that each Republican who now mouths Tea Party rhetoric is serious, nor am I saying that Republicans like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell who gave Bush everything he wanted, have all of the sudden become constitutionalists. What I’m saying is that for the Right, the focus has almost entirely shifted. Spending and the debt are now the primary concerns. Blind support for war still exists, but is now at least permissible to question it. If the GOP has become a single issue party, that issue is now economic. Foreign policy has become somewhat negotiable.
I mention this because this is exactly where our movement steps in. What movement you might ask? I’m talking about the movement represented on Capitol Hill by serious constitutionalists like Congressman Ron Paul, his son Senator Rand Paul and freshmen Congressman like Justin Amash. I’m talking about the serious Tea Partiers who have rejected Bush’s big government agenda are now committed to substantively tackling our budget, debt and deficits. I’m talking about a movement filled with conservatives who have awakened from the Bush years, wiped the cobwebs from their eyes and are still wondering what in the hell just happened. I’m talking about a movement that does not take Barry Goldwater’s advice concerning how we should advance liberty lightly and that still takes the Founders’ philosophy literally. I’m talking a movement made up of many of the people here in this room.
In short, I’m talking about the real conservative movement.
Yes, after eight years of Bush’s big government and two long years of Obama’s even bigger government, a real conservative movement has risen as evidenced by not only the newfound popularity of Ron Paul, but his greater acceptance and influence on the Republican Party. Three years ago Paul couldn’t even get a spot at the Republican convention. Today he is arguably the most recognizable and media-sought Republican in the House, has big government Republicans as horrible as even Lindsey Graham lining up to follow his lead in the fight to audit the Federal Reserve and is now chairman of the Domestic Monetary Policy subcommittee. Foreign policy is a subject now at least open for discussion, as evidenced by the dissent on the Afghanistan war by everyone from George Will to Ann Coulter, but also a good many Tea Partiers who insist that Pentagon spending should be on the budget cutting table. A recent poll showed that a majority of self-described conservatives think the Afghanistan war is bad for the United States, reflecting American sentiment at large and those who doubt Paul’s influential role in changing conservatives’ minds on this subject, simply haven’t been paying attention. In the wake of the TSA basically molesting air travelers, conservatives suddenly rediscovered the importance of civil liberties, doing a complete 180 from the Bush years when they couldn’t get enough of the Patriot Act and other unconstitutional intrusions into our private lives. In rejecting TARP, the bank bailouts and the stimulus packages, virtually every conservative now considers the term “Keynesian economics” a cuss word. Of course, this is the proper economic perspective for any serious conservative movement, and has come about in no small part due to Ron Paul and his movement.
I mention Ron Paul, not because he is the whole of this relatively new and exciting, and very real conservative movement, but because there is almost always some pivotal leader who takes center stage in any movement worth having. The conservative movement of the 1960’s rallied around Goldwater, the 80’s around Reagan, and the mid-90’s, Newt Gingrich and his Republican Revolutionaries. Movements almost always culminate around particular figures, and this one is no different. The neoconservatives and other Bush era Republicans will no doubt continue to disparage Ron Paul and his admirers to try to marginalize the real conservative movement. And we will continue to use the philosophy of liberty to marginalize them, and with the same level of courteousness they’ve shown us along the way.
The good news is, we’re winning. Books by Thomas Woods about Austrian economics, nullifying federal laws and rolling back big government now sit atop the New York Times bestsellers lists and better yet, many states have even begun to talk of nullifying Obamacare based on Woods’ Jeffersonian advice. The ideas of liberty are broadcast in a full-throated manner each weeknight on FOX Business by none other than Judge Andrew Napolitano, whose program Freedom Watch puts the liberals in their place and big government Republicans right next to them where they belong. Talk radio host Mike Church broadcasts the ideas of liberty and the philosophy of Founders to thousands upon thousands, each morning, nationwide on Sirius/XM satellite radio. Great magazines like The American Conservative, which in full disclosure, I contribute to, are not only growing in readership but continue to remind conservatives of their past mistakes so they dare not repeat them. Educational outfits like the Ludwig von Mises Institute now inspire a new generation of free market thinkers, and last but certainly not least, organizations like Campaign for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty represent the best and brightest, both young and old, and those in between, who are genuinely dedicated to kicking ass, taking names, and advancing a real conservative movement.
How real? For all their Tea Party rhetoric, the best budget cuts the Republican establishment can come up with are about $50 billion. Sen. Rand Paul says to that ‘give me a break, how about $500 billion?’ Suffice to say Sen. Paul belongs to the real conservative movement.
I mention all these encouraging developments not to paint an unrealistic or perhaps overly optimistic picture of where the American Right now stands—but to show how much progress we’ve made considering where the Right once stood. Can you imagine any of the developments I just mentioned getting much traction on the Right when conservatives seemed to have lost their collective minds during the Bush years? Hardly. The difference in the political environment between now and just a few years ago is more than just significant—there is now a distinct air of revolution.
As President Obama and the Democrats now saddle this country with unthinkable debt, time is on our side perhaps now more than ever. Even beyond the Right-Left political spectrum, much polling data shows that Americans of all political stripes now list debt and the size of government as top problems that must be addressed. When the Republican Party stood simply for nothing but war toward the end of Bush’s second term, it also stood against public opinion. But a genuinely liberty-minded GOP could potentially bring in countless new members, creating the largest tent imaginable, dedicated overall to the singular issue of addressing our massive debt. In retrospect, Bush’s statism and utopian foreign policy actually drove plenty of sensible people away, ultimately shrinking the Republican Party. A return to fiscal conservatism could potentially grow it.
At this CPAC 2011, the advancement of the real conservative movement can be seen by how many of us, whether those in the Liberty movement, the Tea Party, and others who take the Founders seriously, are not only present, but are growing in our numbers. One of the first conversations I ever had with Young Americans for Liberty President Jeff Frazee was how about discouraging CPAC was during the Bush years. Jeff gave me the distinct impression that he could barely stomach it. I doubt many of us in the real conservative movement feel that way now. And I doubt very seriously that many of us in this room feel that way tonight.
Of course in our midst we still have plenty of the GOP hacks and has-beens, the neocons and other big government wonks who’ve learned nothing from the recent Republican past, and would gladly go back the first chance they got. All this talk of some secret, Muslim Caliphate taking over Egypt this week, sounded more like a bunch of Bush Republicans longing for the good ole’ days of the old War Party they were once so comfortable with, as opposed to the Tea Party that now sets it sites on many of these same Republicans. Rest assured, the kind of “conservatives” who thinks it’s a good idea to present a “Defender of the Constitution” award to an enemy of the Constitution like Donald Rumsfeld here at CPAC, these are not the people who represent any kind of conservative future, but the same, old, dark, big government Republican past and the faster we can keep put them in the rearview mirror, the better.
It is always valuable to make alliances wherever possible, and there is nothing wrong with compromising politically to advance principal—so long as you never compromise your principal principles to advance politically. That said, conservatives who steadfastly still refuse to learn from the past are indeed doomed to repeat it, and will undoubtedly prove completely useless toward our primary goal of finally and fully sticking this out-of-control federal government back in its constitutional box.
The real conservative movement is up to this task. The Constitution is non-negotiable. And despite our critics, taking liberty to the extreme remains this movement’s greatest virtue.