The Principle of Prudence and the Conservative Renewal
National Review Institute Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Thanks, Rich. I’m happy to see so many friends in the audience. And I’m honored to speak to such distinguished guests. I’d say this is, perhaps, the greatest collection of conservative talent ever gathered in one room—with the possible exception of when William F. Buckley dined alone.
I started reading Buckley in college, when one of my economics professors gave me a copy of National Review. And I’ve been reading it ever since. The masthead has changed over the years. When I came to Washington, many of you were just starting out. You were landing your first jobs as writers and editors. Over time, I came to recognize your bylines—and to value your counsel. So, thank you, for 20 years of good advice.
Today, though, you’re asking for my advice—under less-than-ideal circumstances. As you’ll recall, there was an election last year. And it didn’t go our way. Like you, I understand full well that elections have consequences. The vice president’s home is just a few blocks away. And, like you, I’m disappointed. I was looking forward to taking on the big challenges. My kids were looking forward to having a pool.
But there are two ways to respond to defeat: Either you can deny it, or you can learn from it. I choose to learn from it. The way I see it, our defeat is all the more reason to lay out our vision with even more specifics—and with a broader appeal. It will be difficult without a partner in the White House. But I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy. I know we can do it.
That said, we have to deal with the fact that President Obama has a second term. That’s the topic of my talk today. A second term will present new challenges to our side—and new opportunities. To take advantage of them, we will need something we occasionally overlook. We will need prudence. I’d like to explain what that is and why we need it.
First, the context: In the president’s first term, we argued against big government in theory. In his second, we will argue against it in practice. Obamacare is no longer just a 2,000-page bill. Now, it’s 13,000 pages of regulations. And it’s growing. This year, the law will restrict our ability to use flexible-spending accounts. It will even raise taxes on life-saving medical devices. And that’s just health care. Now that the president is implementing his agenda, we’ll see that the benefits are far less than advertised.
And the costs? Well, they’re huge. We spend $1 trillion more than we take in each year. And we can’t keep that up. If we stay on this path, we will run the risk of a debt crisis. Our finances will collapse. Our economy will stall. We have to convince the country to change course.
We have to reform entitlements. And, ultimately, we have to revisit the health-care law. Clearly, President Obama doesn’t want us to get that chance. He wants his last two years to look like his first two years. He wants to perpetuate progressive government—for at least a generation—because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. And to do that, he needs to delegitimize the Republican Party—and House Republicans, in particular. He’ll try to divide us with phony emergencies and bogus deals. He’ll try to get us to fight with each other—to question each other’s motives—so we don’t challenge him.
If we play into his hands, we will betray the voters who supported us—and the country we mean to serve. We can’t let that happen. We have to be smart. We have to show prudence.
What do I mean? Well, prudence is good judgment in the art of governing. Abraham Lincoln called it “one of the cardinal virtues.” And it’s our greatest obligation as public servants. We have to find the good in every situation—and choose the best means to achieve it. We have to make decisions anchored in reality—and take responsibility for the consequences. The prudent man is like a captain at sea. He doesn’t curse the wind. He uses it—to reach his destination.
I’m not saying we should be excessively cautious. When we see an opening—however small—we should take it. What I’m saying is, if we want to promote conservatism, we’ll need to use every tool at our disposal. Sometimes, we’ll have to reject the president’s proposals. And sometimes, we’ll have to make them better.
The president will bait us. He’ll portray us as cruel and unyielding. Just the other day, he said Republicans had “suspicions” about Social Security. He said we had “suspicions” about feeding hungry children. He said we had “suspicions” about caring for the elderly. Look, it’s the same trick he plays every time: Fight a straw man. Avoid honest debate. Win the argument by default.
The way he tells it, it’s the president—and only the president—who’s trying to fix our bridges, to feed our children, to care for seniors, to clean our water. Frankly, he must be exhausted. I know we are.
But we can’t get rattled. We won’t play the villain in his morality plays. We have to stay united. We have to show that—if given the chance—we can govern. We have better ideas.
The fact is, we’re not in the wilderness. Republicans control both the House and most of the statehouses. So we have to oppose the president and the Senate on some fronts—and engage them on others—because we can’t let our country have a debt crisis. If they won’t help fix our entitlements, then we have to buy time. We have to keep the bond markets at bay—for the sake of our people.
That means we’ll face some tough moments—like the fiscal cliff. I know we all didn’t see eye to eye on that vote. But here’s how I saw it: On January 1, a $4.4 trillion tax hike took effect. The Senate voted overwhelmingly to prevent tax hikes for 98 percent of Americans. It made the lower tax rates permanent—something we couldn’t achieve when George W. Bush was in office. And President Obama got less revenue than the speaker offered in the first place. In short, there was no way we’d get a better deal.
That’s not to hide from the fact that this bill wasn’t perfect. We wanted to keep taxes low for everyone. We wanted to cut spending. But this bill had to pass. Otherwise, every single taxpayer would have paid higher taxes. And our economy would have gone into a nosedive. Once I came to that conclusion, my decision was simple: If you think a bill has to pass, then you vote for it.
Now many of my colleagues voted the other way. And I completely respect their decision. Prudence demands mutual understanding—especially among friends. My colleagues and I sought the same end: We wanted a smaller, smarter government. We simply differed on the means. That’s the difficulty of governing. It shouldn’t be a cause for division.
Our tactics will vary from issue to issue. But our strategy will remain the same. We will promote conservatism—at every opportunity.
In the next four years, opportunity won’t come easily. The latest comes with a challenge. We have to pay our bills today. And we have to make sure that we can pay our bills tomorrow. To do that, we need to cut spending and to budget responsibly. Our job—as we see it—is to help prevent a debt crisis.
Every family sets a budget to pay its bills. Every business budgets. The federal government should do the same. In fact, it’s the law. The House has done its job. But the Senate hasn’t passed a budget in nearly four years. That’s unacceptable. The House won’t consider another debt-ceiling increase unless the Senate passes a budget.
We’re not going to just keep raising the debt ceiling. We’re going to make a down payment on our debt reduction. And we’re going to point the country in the right direction.
Yes, there will be times when conservatives disagree on the way forward. But we’ve never marched in lockstep. A healthy debate is a good and needed thing. We can deliberate in private without fighting in public. All we should ask is that we give each other an honest account of our actions—and the reasons for them. We should challenge the Left—not each other.
And if we take the prudent course, we’ll be in good company. Our Founders were men of prudence. Take James Madison. Nowadays we call him the Father of the Constitution. But at the Constitutional Convention, he lost some key arguments. He fought the plan to give each state the same number of seats in the Senate. He thought it was deeply unjust. And at first, he wanted to give Congress even more power. He wanted it to be able to veto state laws.
In both cases, Madison argued vigorously for his side. And in both cases, he lost. But when it came time to ratify the Constitution, there was no greater advocate than Madison. He helped write editorials in support of the document—what we know today as The Federalist Papers. And he led the charge for approval at Virginia’s state convention.
He paid a price for his support. When he ran for Congress, his political adversaries drafted James Monroe to run against him. This was the 18th-century equivalent of “getting primaried.” But Madison decided that, for all its imperfections, he would support the Constitution because it would save the Union. Today, we’re the living beneficiaries of Madison’s prudence.
So what’s the next step? I’d say we have two roles in the president’s second term: to mitigate bad policy—and to advance good policy wherever we can.
On the first point, we have to stop the growth of the administrative state. Executive departments and agencies have become a fourth branch of government in recent years. They combine all three functions of government—executive, legislative, and judicial—in one arbitrary sweep. And the people suffer the consequences. The House must keep watch over these departments—and keep them in line.
On the second point, we have a duty to offer an alternative. We can’t leave the Democrats to their own devices—because they seem to have a short memory. Obamacare imposed over 20 different tax increases—at a cost of $1 trillion. And earlier this month, tax rates went up further. But the Democrats are already calling for higher taxes again. Well, as our House and Senate leaders have said, we’re not raising taxes. We have no desire to be tax collectors for the welfare state. We have to focus on the real problem: spending.
But we can’t just respond to the Democrats’ proposals. We have to offer our own. And we will. This session, I’ll advance reforms to protect and strengthen Medicare and Medicaid. Dave Camp, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, will advance a tax-reform effort. And we will propose a budget that will balance and pay down the debt.
Unfortunately, the Democrats are unlikely to accept our proposals. They refuse to consider real reform. But we will lay the groundwork for future endeavors. So when reform is possible, we will be ready.
Washington may be getting all the attention these days. But that’s only because it’s broken. Today, the frontlines of reform are the states. That’s where Republicans will see their greatest success—thanks to governors like Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Susana Martinez, Chris Christie, Bob McDonnell, Mike Pence, and others.
They deserve our thanks—because they’re models for all of us. They work across the aisle whenever possible. They balance their budgets. And they expand opportunity through education reform. I can’t wait to see what they will accomplish in the year ahead.
The horizon before us might seem narrow. But believe me: It’s going to grow. As the president implements his agenda, the results will fall far short of the rhetoric. And they won’t be pretty. We will have tepid growth and deficits—health-care price controls and rationing.
At that moment, we will be ready. We will offer an alternative vision. We will explain how our vision differs—how it rests on vibrant communities—how it increases social mobility. We will show how we can govern better by governing closer to the people—by strengthening our families and their livelihoods. And we will make clear that we have better ideas to combat poverty. Our policies will lift everyone in this country.
Finally, we will translate that vision into a governing agenda. We will apply our timeless principles to the challenges of today. We’ll say to the country: “Here’s our plan for the economy. Here’s our plan for the budget . . . for health-care . . . for energy . . . for defense.” And when we do that—when we put our plans up against the president’s results—we’ll compare quite favorably. We will win back the trust of the American people. And we will put our plans into action.
We have a lot to do in the next four years. The challenges continue to mount. And it’s easy to get discouraged by it all: the election loss, the difficulty of change. But as William F. Buckley—my fellow Catholic—would say: It is a mortal sin to despair. I’m not ready to give up. And I know you aren’t either. You wouldn’t be here if you were. That’s why I’d like to ask for your help. In this effort, every conservative must be involved.
You know, after the election, I needed to get into the woods. That’s where I recharge. So I took my daughter Liza hunting with me in Oklahoma. And she got her first deer. And I realized just how quickly she was growing up. That got me thinking. When I’m old and gray—and my grandkids ask me about this moment—I don’t want to tell them how America lost its way. I don’t want to say, “Don’t blame me. I didn’t vote for any of it.” Instead, I want to tell them how America got back on track. I want to look at them and say, “Yeah, it was tough. But it was worth it.”
Our country is worth the fight. With your help—and with a touch of prudence—we will win it.