In 1976, anti-establishment conservatives found a leader for the ages — yet they still lost. By 1980, they had developed an agenda for their time — and they won. Its time to do it again.
With things shaping up to be a positive year for Republican candidates, conventional wisdom in Washington says that the best thing conservatives can do is nothing. That our strategy should be to sit on our hands, keep our heads down and let President Obama’s failures preserve a Republican majority in the House and win one in the Senate.
But conventional wisdom in Washington, as usual, is dead wrong. That counsel is unworthy of the party of Lincoln and Reagan, and unequal to the task before us.
President Obama and the Democrats have done everything they can to deserve defeat. But the Republican Party has not yet done what it must to deserve victory. We have not yet won back the trust of the American people, or explained exactly why they should give it to us. 2014 must be the year we change that.
The important task before conservatives now is to redefine our movement, rebuild our party and rescue our nation. Conservatives have faced this very challenge before, nearly four decades ago.
In the winter of 1977, Ronald Reagan and his conservatives were being attacked by the Washington Republican establishment for challenging President Ford in the 1976 primaries. They were being blamed for handing victory to Jimmy Carter and the Democrats.
But Reagan knew that it was the party establishment that had lost that election by losing touch and losing credibility. He knew the future of the GOP was not the old party of Republican insiders, it was a new party of conservative ideas.
And so Ronald Reagan called for a new Republican Party, and conservatives went about the hard, heroic work of applying timeless principles to timely problems. Those in the establishment never knew what hit them.
In 1976, anti-establishment conservatives found a leader for the ages — yet they still lost. By 1980, they had developed an agenda for their time — and they won. It’s time to do it again.
An agenda for our time must meet the challenge of our time — and of this generation. That challenge is America’s growing opportunity deficit.
We see this opportunity deficit at the bottom of our economy, where dysfunctional welfare policies trap poor families in poverty. We see it in the middle class, where Washington drives up the costs of gas and groceries, homes and health care, of raising kids and getting a good education. And we see it at the top, where political and corporate elites rig the system to benefit themselves at the expense of small businesses and working families.
Taken together, these challenges represent America’s real problem of inequality: not the income gap between the rich and the poor, but the opportunity gap between Washington, D.C., and everybody else.
There are conservative solutions to these problems, but those solutions are not coming from the Washington establishment.
A new generation of conservative ideas must come from a new generation of conservative leaders, and for the first time in a long time, they are.
We have concrete, specific proposals to help lower-income families overcome welfare, improve education and job training, and rescue at-risk communities with too few jobs, too few fathers and too little hope.
We have solutions to end cronyist privilege and corporate welfare, to close the Beltway Favor Bank, and put America’s political and corporate elites back to work for the rest of us.
And we have introduced legislation to rescue America’s working families from the middle class squeeze, to make it more affordable to raise and educate their kids and afford health insurance and a home of their own.
We have an agenda. And contrary to the establishment’s advice, we’re not hiding it from the media or the American people. It’s time for the Republican Party to stop talking about Ronald Reagan and start acting like him.
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 their 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.
Mike Lee is a U.S. senator from Utah.