Senator Mike Lee, a politician and lawyer from Utah, spoke Friday at the Western Conservative Summit, “America At Its Best” (7/18/14). Below are his remarks prepared beforehand for the event:
Ideas to Action: Enacting a Conservative Reform Agenda
Good evening. Thank you very much. It’s an honor to be here with you tonight.
I always look forward to going home to Utah after a long week in Washington, but tonight the great state of Colorado feels like home, and I am delighted to be here with all of you in the beautiful city of Denver.
Like so many things about the mountain west, the Western Conservative Summit truly represents “America At Its Best.”
And I don’t mean that in a partisan way.
Of course, I wouldn’t be nearly as excited to be here if it were called the Western Liberal Summit; but what makes this event special is not just that everyone in the room is conservative, but also that we’re all Americans. We’re here because we share a commitment to the fundamental dignity of all human life… because we love this great country and we care about its future.
This is what brings us together this weekend to celebrate American exceptionalism and discuss the most pressing challenges facing us today.
This is what America looks like “at its best.”
Some may think this is a strange thing to say. After all, we usually think of the iconic, indispensable leaders of our past—like Washington, Lincoln, and Reagan—when we envision America at her best.
But what makes America exceptional isn’t the genius of a few wise men—it’s the attitude of ordinary citizens, stubbornly committed to defending their God-given right to self-government.
These are our unsung heroes: men and women who may not have commanded armies, won wars, or inspired generations, but who embody the distinctly American mindset that insists every individual has the freedom to live his own life and the duty to help his neighbor.
I’m talking about great Americans like Levi Preston, who, at the ripe young age of twenty-one, left his home in Danvers, Massachusetts to join the minutemen in their fight against the British redcoats in the Battle of Concord.
Decades later, he was asked by an historian why he went to fight that day. The historian wanted to know which of the “intolerable oppressions” imposed by the British had compelled Preston to action.
Was it the infamous Stamp Act? “I never saw one of those stamps,” Preston replied.
Perhaps the much-reviled tea-tax? “I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard.”
What about the great thinkers of the era, maybe he had “been reading Harrington or Sidney and Locke about the eternal principles of liberty”?
“Never heard of ‘em,” Preston shot back. “We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’ Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack.”
With this, the historian quit guessing and simply asked: “what was the matter and what did you mean in going to the fight?”
Preston’s answer says it all. He said, “what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t [think] we should.”
The same dogged commitment to self-government that compelled Levi Preston to fight that spring morning in 1775 is what brings us here tonight.
This is what makes America exceptional: our habit of joining together to meet the needs of our neighbors, to solve problems in our communities, and to serve the common good of our nation.
We don’t do this just once a year at the Western Conservative Summit; we do it every day in our communities.
We do it not just as elected officials or political activists, but also as families and neighbors, congregations and local associations, businesses and customers.
And we do it not through a federally funded government program designed in Washington, but through the institutions of our voluntary civil society and free-enterprise economy—where we’re able to utilize our God-given talents and our own exertions in the service of others, to improve the lives of those around us and pursue happiness together.
This is America at its best: ordinary citizens coming together voluntarily to help each other get ahead.
But today, too many of our fellow Americans are being left behind.
The problem isn’t that there are no more Levi Prestons in America. All of you in this room prove that the commitment to self-government and the habits of mutual cooperation are alive and well in this country.
The problem is that we have a federal government that, for too long, has operated as if its purpose were to define and guarantee our happiness, rather than expand and protect the space in which we can pursue our happiness together.
We can no longer ignore the consequences of our hyperactive and overbearing federal government: at-risk communities with too few jobs, too few fathers, and too little hope, and working families stymied from getting ahead by stagnant wages and steadily increasing costs of health care, education, housing, and childcare.
To get America back to her best, we will need a concrete, comprehensive reform agenda that, as Abraham Lincoln put it, aims “to elevate the condition of men – to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance, in the race of life.”
For this kind of government reform to become a reality, it will need to be advanced by the Republican Party.
Creating a reform agenda in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, but adapted to the unique challenges of our generation, will require a level of creativity and innovation that simply doesn’t exist within the Democratic Party.
For decades, the Left has had the same political program: defend the unwieldy institutions of our outdated welfare state, distract us from the failures of those institutions, and divide the American people with identity politics and the make-believe “war on women.” And it has left liberals intellectually exhausted.
It also doesn’t help that they’re ideologically committed to, and electorally dependent upon, an ever-expanding welfare state that is the source of so many of these “artificial weights” holding back hard-working Americans.
For conservatives to meet this challenge, we need the Republican Party “at its best”—that is, we need it to be the party of ideas.
This is especially important to remember in election years like this one.
Too often we become preoccupied with winning a Republican majority in Congress, and we neglect the need to generate conservative ideas on how to reform government.
As we seek to transform the conservative movement into a national majority, we must remember that a majority is a means to an end.
Our ultimate goal is to enact conservative policies that restore the proper role of government, reenergize our economy, and create the conditions in which all Americans have a fair chance to pursue happiness—and find it.
Starting there, we can work our way backward.
Our task, to paraphrase James Madison, requires two things: “first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.”
To enact conservative policies, we will need conservative majorities in the House and Senate, but this alone is not enough. We will also need to elect a conservative to the White House who
will unapologetically fight… for the principles we believe in, the values we share, and the policies we all know actually work.
That does mean winning elections in 2014 and 2016 – but to do that we must earn a mandate from the American people today.
Starting now, we must win their support for our vision: a conservative reform agenda that doesn’t just cut big government, but fixes broken government.
Given the size and dysfunction of our government today, conservatism should be synonymous with fundamental government reform. We are conservative not in spite of our desire to fix broken government, but because of it.
More and more every day we are confronted with the real-life consequences of a government that tries to do things that it cannot and should not do.
Our federal government is so overextended that it is failing to fulfill even its most basic responsibilities—like caring for our veterans, securing our borders, enforcing our laws, and conducting a coherent foreign policy that, at the very least, does no harm to our national security.
And the liberal ideology driving this expansion of the state seeks to subordinate the dignity of the individual to the political agenda of a progressive government. This is an agenda that denies the sanctity of life, rejects the inviolable human right to live according to one’s religious convictions, and is blind to the moral and economic consequences of our nation’s marriage crisis.
But what often gets overlooked is the fact that most of the things the federal government does that are outside of its basic responsibilities end up hurting the people they are meant to help.
This is the real tragedy of our broken government. Unlike the major scandals that dominate the headlines, this government failure isn’t discussed on the nightly news, but around kitchen tables all across the country, by Americans who are trying to figure out how to make ends meet or struggling to get ahead.
This is America’s large and growing Opportunity Deficit, and it exists at every level of our society.
At the bottom of the economy there is a crisis of immobility among the poor, where families and communities are trapped in poverty, sometimes for generations, and are disconnected from the networks of opportunity that more affluent Americans take for granted.
At the same time, our nation’s shortage of opportunities affects the middle class, where the hallmarks of the American Dream—from family stability and work-life balance to affordable education and health care—have grown too elusive for too many.
Finally, this opportunity deficit exists at the top of the economy in the form of crony capitalism and special-interest privilege, where political and economic elites collude to make it easier for preferred Washington insiders to succeed, and harder for their competitors to get a fair shot.
Government policies are adding to these problems by making life harder for the first two groups, protecting the last group, and raising taxes on everyone.
Conservatism – our principles and the policies that flow from them – will offer the best solutions to these problems.
A conservative reform agenda must tackle this Opportunity Deficit head on.
To fix our broken government it’s not enough simply to roll back ineffective policies that concentrate power in Washington. We must also roll out bold conservative reforms that empower the people closest to the problems to test and refine solutions that work best for their communities.
Conservatives can be confident that these kinds of bottom-up reforms would reduce the size and cost of government—but only incidentally. The primary goal should be to build a functioning government that works for all Americans—especially the poor and middle class—and protects the space for them to meet the challenges of life in the twenty-first century.
These are the basic principles behind a new line of legislative proposals put forward by principled conservatives—in both chambers of Congress—who are committed to meeting our country’s most pressing challenges with positive reforms.
Taken together, these proposals form a concrete, comprehensive, conservative reform agenda, aimed at reducing the cost of, and increasing access to, the staples of working and middle-class economic security.
Although the Senate Majority Leader has all but paralyzed legislative activity in Congress, the past year has been a remarkably creative and productive time for our cause. This is the most exciting time for conservative policy innovation since the late 1970s, when Ronald Reagan and his generation of conservatives developed an agenda to revive America’s economy and win the Cold War.
Today we need a 21st-century agenda to meet the unique challenges of our generation, and conservatives are answering the call with new policy ideas, grounded in constitutional principles, that speak directly to the kitchen-table problems working families face today.
To help improve upward mobility – to make poverty temporary rather than tolerable – conservatives have introduced plans to reform our welfare system, the Head Start program, and our criminal justice and prison systems.
To help working families of and aspiring to the middle class, we have proposals to repeal and replace Obamacare with patient-driven, market-based reforms. We have plans to break up the higher education cartels, increasing access to, and lowering the costs of, college. I’ve also introduced a tax reform plan to eliminate the parent-tax penalty and a bill to give working families in the private sector the same access to comp-time now enjoyed only by government employees.
And for the first time in a long time, conservatives are beginning to turn the tide in the fight against corporate welfare and crony capitalism.
These reform ideas represent a starting point, not a finish line. But we have already begun to see the kind of momentum that these reforms can generate this election season. Many of the most promising conservative candidates around the country have embraced these ideas—and they’re winning.
This is exactly the kind of model that we can replicate at the national level in 2016.
The key to expanding the conservative movement into a majority is to get more people to sign on—and run on—these reforms. That’s where all of you come in.
This year, when candidates ask for your vote, make them earn it. Forget their personalities and focus on their policies. Don’t settle for spin. Ask for specifics.
The kind of leaders we need won’t just tell you what they’re against. They’ll tell you what they’re for, and why.
My challenge to you is not simply to find and support true conservative reformers. My challenge to you is to become one. Become the kind of thoughtful, positive, principled conservative our movement wants, the Establishment fears, and our country needs.
Before conservatives can celebrate victory, we must first deserve it.
Just as our Founding generation made their way from the Tea Party in Boston to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia; just as Reagan’s generation made its way from defeat in 1976 to victory in 1980; so too our generation must now turn from protest to reform, from criticism to leadership, from division to unity.
Together, this new generation of reform conservatives can revive our movement, rebuild our party, and restore opportunity to our neighbors and prosperity to our nation.
Let me finish tonight with a final thought and challenge. In order to live in an America “at its best” we must expect the best and do our best. As conservatives, we stop just talking about Ronald Reagan, and start ACTING LIKE HIM.
Reagan refused to settle for the status quo. He expected more. And so must we.
Today, Washington wants you to settle for a mediocre America. I am here tonight to tell you, IT IS TIME TO EXPECT MORE.
So, Don’t settle for high unemployment and stagnant economy, EXPECT opportunity and upward mobility.
Don’t settle for liberal domination of the news and media, expect honest debate and deeper dialogue.
Don’t settle for trillion-dollar deficits, expect balanced budgets.
Don’t settle for Washington-centered solutions, expect communities, neighborhoods, and families to solve problems.
Don’t settle for a president who legislates with a phone and a pen, expect Congress to do its job.
Don’t settle for mediocrity and an America in decline. Expect America at its best… Expect more! Expect Freedom!
Thank you and God bless.