Thursday, July 19, 2007

Getting back to Principles

Friends, First, I have to thank some of you for passing this newsletter on to friends and colleagues. I was told of at least 10 forwards this past week. It’s very flattering to think that I can make such a positive impression.
The father of a friend of mine in high school had been a smoker for years, and I have no doubt that he had heard a million messages about the dangers of smoking. One day his four-year-old daughter asked him if he was going to die from smoking cigarettes. He put his cigarette down and never smoked again. It wasn’t data or public service announcements; it was the realization that if he truly loved his daughter and wanted to be with her for as long as possible that he needed to quit smoking. A higher reason compelled him than his own health.
Recently there have been a number of articles posing the questions, “What happened to the Conservative movement?” and “Where did they go wrong?” Obviously, the war in Iraq has really hurt the Republicans, but conservatives started to lose their way before 9/11. The massive increases in government spending and the big entitlement program for prescription drugs, Medicare Part D, were choices Republicans made without regard to the war on terror. Bush passed the tax cuts and passed a few free trade bills, but other than that, his record on small government does not look much better than that of Bill Clinton.The Bush Administration has pushed some good smaller government initiatives like Social Security Private Accounts and Health Savings Accounts, but these never got out of the gate. The public never got inspired because the White House sold ideas like financial services on the technical merits of how they might help increase our income. Those are good reasons for voting for an idea, but they are not stand up and cheer good reasons.

Looking at Congress and the new Presidential candidates is there hope that the champions of small government can turn things around? Many seem to be afflicted like the President by their inability to communicate their ideas effectively. Michael Medved, a conservative syndicated radio talk-show host wrote a post this past week that echoes some of these thoughts in the excerpt below.
And Republicans are promising….what, exactly? So far, our only response to the Democratic promises on Peace, Health Care and the Environment is that liberal solutions don’t work and tend to make situations worse than before. These arguments need to be made, and the public should be appropriately frightened by the huge increase in the size and cost of government implicit in liberal plans. But these warnings hardly constitute the sort of positive program or soaring vision that can [energize] a cynical and dispirited electorate.
Everyone saw the crushing defeat that the immigration bill experienced. In a news report afterwards, several Republican Senators from the committee that created the immigration bill expressed bewilderment at the outcry. The first thing out of their mouths was a defense of its technical merits. With egos bruised, they lashed out with claims of prejudice as to explain why their bill failed.My first interpretation of what has happened echoed many other columnists I read. Conservative lawmakers had simply stopped paying attention to their constituents. However, suggesting that they shouldn’t have ignored the majority of voters presents a new problem. Where is the room for courageously standing up for what you believe in? Isn’t this why we remember Jimmy Stewart giving his passionate speech at the end of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”? How do you draw a line between being a suck up who follows popular sentiment like Clinton and going down with the ship like George Bush? It comes down to principles and some humility. Politics isn’t science. Statistics and rigorous logic will only take you so far. You must ground what you believe in and what you say on good principles if people are going to become passionate about your ideas. Strong principles hit deeper than strong data. One of the defenses I heard for the immigration bill was that it would help the Republicans woo the Hispanic vote, which is important for future voting patterns. It may be true, but what kind of principle is this based upon? Anything to win? Anything to stay in power? Tactical behavior doesn’t motivate, principles motivate. This is why Mel Gibson made Braveheart about William Wallace, dedicated to the freedom of his country, and not Robert the Bruce, who vacillated to gain long-term advantage.
Just having strongly held principles is not enough. Reason and experience must strengthen them continually. You can’t be that nut pulling a gun on city employees because it’s your God given right to pour battery acid down the sewer. You can’t be like Hugo Chavez spouting wild claims with nothing to back them up. Exercising humility and self-reflection are necessary to ground yourself in reality. The more developed your principles the better you can defend the other things built upon them. The conservatives lost power because they became convinced that winning elections was all that mattered. As long as they were in power, they thought that good legislation would just happen. George Bush and Karl Rove came up with brilliant tactics and statistical analysis to find the votes they needed to win. They hired market researchers to investigate which words to use when selling their ideas. What they failed to do was establish a core set of principles so that America could accept the downsides because of the goodness of the purpose. Americans do not get passionate about passing legislation that is beneficial to most and harmful to few. They get passionate about legislation when their principles demand it be passed. As always, tell me what you think. Do not let me be a hypocrite. Point out anything that is not principled that I espouse in these letters. Pass this on to anyone interested.

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