The Inherent Compassion of Conservatism

By Dick Armey | July 7, 2008 | 8:24 PM EDT


You've asked me to speak about the future of conservatism. I'm optimistic. I take the long view on these things. I've seen our cause rise and fall many times. I first realized I was a conservative as a graduate student in the early '60s. I saw my hero Barry Goldwater defeated. But many years later, I saw my other hero, Ronald Reagan, elected. I've suffered through the despair of Watergate and the joy of '94. I've watched the ideas of John Maynard Keynes give way to the ideas of Adam Smith. I've gone from Krushchev banging his shoe, to Gorbachev starring in a potato-chip commercial.

And ladies and gentlemen, I can honestly tell you that, more than at any time in my life, our ideas and policies are on the rise.

One of my earliest memories as a conservative was when a professor named Paul N. Rossenstein-Rodan told me that the reason that Kennedy beat Johnson for the nomination, and then beat Nixon in the general election, was that Kennedy understood the importance of "style." I didn't fully appreciate what he meant, at the time. But twenty years later, with the election of Ronald Reagan, it became clearer to me.

Ronald Reagan made every utterance seem to say, "Mr. and Mrs. America, I'm on your side." He spoke to people's hearts. He was charming and witty and inherently likeable. He could take any conservative idea and make it sound like common sense - which, of course, it was. But it was not simply his rhetorical skills that made him great. I believe the fundamental secret of Ronald Reagan's enduring standing with the American people was that he always took care to make clear that he understood the goodness of the American people and had the decency to respect that goodness.

In the years since Ronald Reagan left office, we conservatives have occasionally forgotten this all-important secret. We have quite rightly accused the Left of being more in touch with their feelings than with the facts. But we ourselves have been so busy talking about facts and advocating policies, that we've sometimes neglected to say why we want those policies enacted. We give people the WHAT without the WHY. We've forgotten to add what I call the "Because Clause."

We want school choice BECAUSE no child should ever be trapped in a failing

We want tax relief BECAUSE it's your money and you should be able to keep more of it.

We want to end the death tax BECAUSE it's wrong for the government to steal a child's legacy.

We want to eliminate the marriage penalty BECAUSE it's wrong to discriminate against marriage.

We want medical savings accounts BECAUSE people should have the right to choose their own doctors.

We want to stop the Democrats' 40-year raid on Social Security - and just yesterday we learned from the budget office that, as of this fiscal year, we have stopped that raid - BECAUSE it's wrong to betray our seniors.

Ronald Reagan showed us that when we present our ideas in terms that have meaning in people's daily lives, we not only win in intellectual terms but we also earn enough political standing to enact our principles into law.

The governor of my state understands this. George W. Bush embodies the Reagan demeanor. Like Reagan, he is sunny, he is optimistic, and, yes, he's compassionate - because he recognizes that conservatism, like America itself, is inherently sunny and optimistic and compassionate.

We should all welcome the "compassionate conservative" label. Its meaning is clear: we'll work to explain the inherent compassion of conservative ideas. And I'm happy to say, we in Congress are getting better at doing what my governor does so well: conveying the inherent compassion of our ideas.

Ladies and gentlemen, I want to make something clear. I, Dick Armey, am fiercely, devotedly, and compassionately conservative. I don't mind being called compassionate, because I know our philosophy is the essence of compassion. It is the Left's philosophy that lacks compassion. Our problem is we've let the other team steal the "compassionate" label from us, just as they stole the word "liberal." It's time we took those labels back. And I'm happy to say, we are taking them back.

Take education. Three years ago, we were in a hole. After the '96 election, we were barely alive on this issue. People actually believed our education policy consisted solely of a desire to abolish the federal department, because that's all they heard for six months in Dick Morris's dishonest ads. But today, the whole nation is talking about giving parents more choices so they can get their children out of failing schools. It's the wave of the future. Rather than trust an education bureaucracy, we trust parents, who say, "Give that money to my local school district and my local school, and let them get better results with it - results that I can measure and compare. And if that doesn't work, let me take that money someplace that can get results."

Another example. Welfare reform. In the old days, we talked about welfare queens. But when we changed our focus to what happens in the lives of children when they have two parents in the home instead of only one, and what happens to those children's self-esteem and happiness when they have parents who are working instead of dependent, then we started winning on the welfare question. And now our welfare reform is so overwhelmingly successful that even Bill Clinton celebrates it as his own.

These ideas are common sense. And people respond to us more favorably when we address them in common-sense terms.

We have to recognize that, when mom and dad and grandma and grandpa look down at that little baby in the cradle, they are not thinking about specific policy proposals. All they want is that child's happiness. Our job is to draw the dotted line between our proposals and that child's happiness.

I'm reminded of something Phil Gramm once said. He was on TV with a left-wing advocate of some sort, and he said in passing that "The problem is people in Washington don't love our children as much as we do." And the advocate took offense at that. And she said, "Senator, I think I love your children every bit as much as you do." And he said, "Oh yeah? What are their names?"

If you want real compassion, you have to look to the Right, because the Left can only think in terms of power and control. They don't care what anyone does, as long as it's mandatory.

Now, why am I laying so much stress on the inherent compassion of our ideas? Because, ladies and gentlemen, we are on the eve of the biggest election of our lives. It's the election that decides whether true compassion - or the Left's mandatory variety - governs in Washington.

Next year is the Super Bowl of Democracy. If you win the Super Bowl, you've won it all. If you win the Super Bowl, you can enact your program. And my line is that in order to win the Super Bowl, you've got to win all four quarters.

The first quarter is the Presidency.

The second quarter is the Senate.

The third quarter is the House.

And the fourth quarter is the Judiciary.

Win all four quarters, and then conservative ideas will not only prevail in Congress and be signed into law by the President, but those laws will also be upheld by the Courts, and take root in our hearts, and endure.

Why do I want to win the Super Bowl of Democracy? BECAUSE winning enables our ideas to achieve the prevalence and the permanence they deserve. BECAUSE our ideas have been validated by empirical reality as benefiting the lives of the American people - and they deserve to be enshrined in law.

I realize winning both branches is a tall order. But you have to understand, this is the first time in my adult life that it's really seemed achievable. And personally, I think we can do it. I think we can win both branches next year. I haven't felt this optimistic since 1993.

Think of what it will mean to have a conservative President and a conservative Congress working together for the first time in our lifetimes.

It will mean real tax relief for the hard-working taxpayers of this country, BECAUSE they've earned it. And real tax reform, BECAUSE our tax code should treat everyone the same.

It will mean real protections for the unborn, BECAUSE human life is sacred, and nothing has shamed this Administration more profoundly than its callous contempt for innocent human life.

It will mean real parental choice in education, BECAUSE every child deserves a chance, and BECAUSE we can no longer tolerate what my governor calls "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

It will mean a real national missile defense, a peace shield, the ultimate "Reagan National Monument," if you will - BECAUSE national defense is the first and most sacred duty of our federal government.

It will mean real conservatives on the Supreme Court - people like my hero, Clarence Thomas - BECAUSE judges should interpret, not rewrite, the Constitution of the United States.

And if we keep ourselves disciplined, and if we build public support, then I know we will earn the standing to do some really big things that President Reagan was only able to speak and dream of, but was never able to achieve.

Imagine a tax code that is simple, honest, and fair - a tax code that lets people have faith in their government again - a tax code that unleashes the full potential of our people, spreading wealth everywhere, and lifting even the poorest families out of poverty.

Imagine a retirement security system that lets people have the dignity of investing their own tax dollars and earning a decent return for their retirement - not a system like today's, that cheats hard-working minorities of their fair return.

And just imagine a universal private health-care system that ensures all Americans have true freedom to hire and fire their doctors and their insurers.

If the first phase of conservatism was about defeating communism abroad, the second phase is about ending big government at home. We've defeated communism. And we've even ended the idea of big government here at home, but not the reality. The "era" of big government may be over, but big government itself is still going strong, thanks to President Clinton and his left-wing allies in Congress. We've balanced the budget, but we haven't shrunk it yet.

To complete this second phase of our great project - I mean re-limiting government - we need to persuade the American people to entrust both elected branches to conservative leadership. And that is why it's essential that we make clear - as Ronald Reagan always did - that we recognize the goodness of the American people and have the decency to respect that goodness.

In conclusion, friends, my advice is this. To win the Super Bowl of Democracy next year, every one of us needs to rally around those "Because Clauses." We need to show the WHY behind every WHAT. When we make clear the inherent compassion of our ideas, the enactment of those ideas will follow, surely enough. And then the future of our movement - and of this Nation - will be bright indeed.

Thank you, and God bless you all.