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“America Deserves a Choice”
Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin
Conservative Political Action Convention – Washington, D.C.
9 February 2012
It’s getting late, so I’ll get right to the point: We only have nine months to defeat Barack Obama – nine months to reject his agenda of debt, doubt, and decline.
And while defeating this President is necessary to getting America back on track, it is hardly sufficient.
Put simply, Americans deserve a choice – and it is our responsibility to offer them one. They deserve an opportunity, not just to divert from the President’s path to decline, but to affirm a reform agenda that restores our bedrock of founding principles.
Now is the time to promote American exceptionalism, remove barriers to upward mobility for those in need, and put the nation back on a path to renewed prosperity for all.
Look, the Obama presidency has been a disappointing failure. He should have taken steps immediately to restore confidence in the American economy.
Instead, he sidetracked the economy to pursue a debt-fueled ideological agenda that squandered the trust of the American people.
Yes, he inherited a tough situation, rooted in decades of bad policies supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. But this President and his administration made a bad situation far worse.
His interventions into the private sector were not just wrong in themselves. They were marred by political favoritism and discredited economic theories.
And his idea of Wall Street reform was to provide more protection and preferential treatment for big banks, and to empower the same regulators who didn’t see the last crisis coming.
He sold us a massive stimulus bill as a way to keep unemployment from ever rising above 8 percent.
Instead, it added hundreds of billions of dollars to the national debt and planted the seeds for an outbreak of crony capitalism, as job losses continued to mount.
His health-care overhaul essentially transferred control over one-sixth of the economy to unaccountable bureaucrats in Washington. This created a bleak outlook for the quality of care for American families.
And his support for imposing harmful energy taxes in the middle of a recession, it made us wonder: If these are the kinds of job-destroying policies he would push in a weak economy, how would he govern if he had jobs to spare?
To top it off, he has failed to offer a credible plan for lifting the crushing burden of debt that is stifling job creation today and threatening the next generation with a diminished future.
So the results are clear: Unemployment remains above 8 percent. Job creation remains stagnant, the recovery remains sluggish, and major obstacles to opportunity – well, they’ve only grown larger for millions of Americans.
A clear majority of Americans feels like our nation is in a state of decline, and trust in government is at an all-time low. That’s no surprise, since the size of government is at an all-time high.
Even if next November is no more than a referendum on the President’s economic performance, his failed policies will spell defeat for him and his party.
But you and I are here because we know there’s so much more to it than that. We know that there is more at stake. We know that this election cannot be just a referendum on President Obama’s failed leadership.
Americans deserve a choice – a choice between two dramatically different visions for our country’s future. As conservatives, we owe Americans that choice.
Look, I know there are people in this town who are terrified at the prospect of an election with real alternative visions at stake. “Make it a referendum. Win by default,” they say. Just oppose – we can win that way. Don’t propose bold ideas – that’s too risky.
I’ll admit, the easy way is always tempting. But my friends, if that’s all we stand for, then what are we doing at here CPAC – the place where so many giants of our movement came to advance their boldest ideas?
The next President will face fiscal and economic challenges that are huge… almost unprecedented. He can’t resolve these challenges if he wins by default. He needs a mandate – not just to displace Barack Obama, but to preserve and strengthen the very Idea of America.
It will not be enough to repeal the President’s disastrous health-care law. We must solve the problem in health care by curbing out-of-control costs that erode paychecks for working families and push quality coverage out of reach for millions of Americans.
It will not be enough to stop the administration’s war against proven sources of American-made energy. We must build the case for developing energy here at home, to create jobs and lower the price of energy in this country.
It will not be enough to stop Washington’s reckless spending spree, which has spread cronyism and corporate welfare. We must bring the bureaucracy to heel and restore the rule of law where it was replaced by the whims of those in power.
And it will not be enough to condemn the President’s attempt to pit one group of Americans against another.
Instead, we must promote upward mobility, starting with solutions that speak to our broken education system, broken immigration policy, and broken safety-net programs that foster dependency instead of helping people get back on their feet.
In other words, a bold reform agenda is our moral obligation. We have an obligation to provide the American people with a clear path that gets our country back on track.
If we make the case effectively and win this November, then we will have the moral authority to enact the kind of fundamental reforms America has not seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year.
That’s the moral case for going bold. But there is also a strong political case for going bold.
The times call for leaders who understand the depth of the problems we face, and who offer far-reaching reforms equal to the challenges. In 1980, Ronald Reagan offered supply-side economics at home and a rollback of Soviet Communism abroad.
The challenges this time? They’re different. But the moment calls for the same kind of boldness.
Everybody knows this is politically risky territory. Republicans have their battle scars on entitlement reform. That’s why some argue that we should downplay bold agendas and simply wage a campaign focused solely on the President and his party.
I firmly disagree. Boldness and clarity offer the greatest opportunity to create a winning coalition. We will not only win the next election – we have a unique opportunity to sweep and remake the political landscape.
Of course we will highlight the President’s failed agenda. But Americans deserve to choose an alternative agenda – one that aligns with our needs. One we can rally behind.
One of our movement’s great accomplishments this past year was to unify conservatives around just such an agenda.
We began the year by advancing the most ambitious budget ever put forward in Congress – a comprehensive and principled plan to lift the debt and free the nation from the constraints of ever-expanding government.
Our budget won near-unanimous support from Republicans in both the House and the Senate, thanks to principled leadership and dozens of energized freshmen committed to this high cause. If that doesn’t bear witness to the power and influence of the conservative movement, I don’t know what can.
For all of the overblown talk about conservative divisions, our movement has achieved astonishing unity, not only on the destination we want to reach, but also on the specific path to get there.
We have transformed the debate in Washington over our nation’s fiscal future.
While President Obama shirks his responsibility to advance solutions to our fiscal challenges, he can no longer hide from the merciless math of the balance sheet. Conservatives have made certain of that.
We have pressured the President to put forward a number of deficit-reduction proposals – and while none has offered a credible solution to our fiscal crisis, each one has revealed a little bit more about what the President would do if he were forced to end the deficits.
It wouldn’t be pretty. His proposals have three things in common: they load massive tax increases on small businesses and hardworking families, they require bureaucratic rationing in government health care programs, and they hollow out our national security.
Every time we force the President and his party’s leaders to get specific on how they would solve our fiscal challenges, they show us an agenda that does great harm to our economic security, our health security, and our national security.
So our strategy for changing the conversation last year was not just a policy success – it was a political success as well.
2011 was a year of tremendous accomplishment. But conservatives are frustrated that we weren’t able to do more. Well, count me at the head of that line.
But what stands in our way is not division within our movement. It’s a President who is stuck on a failed agenda and Senate Democrats whose partisan leaders have not produced a budget in over 1,000 days.
As conservatives, let us stay unified. Let’s bank every dollar of savings we can get between now and November.
But let’s keep our eyes on the big event – the choice America must make between opportunity, prosperity, and growth… or debt, doubt, and decline.
Let’s work together to build a great coalition, based on the principles and beliefs that make America great.
Let’s lead this coalition by applying our timeless principles to the challenges of today, with reforms that get our economy into high gear, repair our safety net, and strengthen our health and retirement security programs.
And let’s turn this coalition into a governing majority by advancing these reforms when it matters most – in the midst of a critical election year.
The President and his party’s leaders have no stomach for this kind of coalition. They have already chosen to isolate themselves from the growing bipartisan consensus for reform.
They simply cannot compromise on their agenda of higher taxes, more bureaucracy, and managed decline. They are too deeply wedded to an ideology that holds that our rights come from government, not from nature and nature’s God.
For an example of what this means in practice, look no further than the recent conflict between the President’s health care law and our religious freedom.
This, as the President likes to say, is a “teachable moment.”
This is what we get when the President applies his progressive philosophy that views “rights,” not as inalienable gifts from our creator, but more like revocable privileges from our government.
In this view, rights are not universal or timeless – they must change and evolve in the name of progress.
And who defines “progress”? Well, whoever happens to be in power at the time.
That’s how we get to where we are today – a situation where the government can supposedly invent a new “right” that trumps our constitutional right to observe our faith in freedom.
You see, if government is no longer the protector of your natural rights, but the creator of new rights, then government wins and freedom loses wherever the two collide.
This ideological agenda is largely responsible for the President’s dismal results. Frankly, his policies, his ideology, and his vision are a rejection of the American Idea.
Of course, he says his recipe is as American as apple pie, but under his management, that pie’s been getting smaller and smaller. Over six million Americans have fallen into poverty since the President took office.
So the choice we face is a referendum of sorts – but the referendum is on the principles that make up the American Idea: free enterprise and economic liberty; limited government and spending restraint; traditional family and community values; and a strong national defense.
America deserves a choice – a chance to affirm these principles of American exceptionalism. And if we do not define the choice, then the President and his party’s leaders will define it for us.
The President himself is framing this election as a stark choice between two conflicting visions. Recently he said that, “The very core of what this country stands for is on the line – the notion that we’re all in this together, that we look out for one another – that’s at stake in this election.”
“We’re all in this together” versus “You’re on your own” – that’s how the President is defining this choice.
“We’re all in this together” – it’s a powerful and appropriate phrase for describing the best in our nation’s history. It speaks to our affinity for family, community, and the religious institutions through which we really do look out for one another.
But the reality is that the President’s rhetoric has always conflicted with the President’s agenda. The policy agenda he has promoted weakens these very institutions. It stifles their vitality and substitutes federal power in their place.
He says, “We’re all in this together” – but his re-election strategy is to divide Americans, to foster envy and resentment, and to push programs that entrench dependency and grow government.
This is not who we are. Americans believe in a few simple principles. We believe in a Constitution of limited powers. Washington has broad authority to establish the conditions of freedom and secure individual rights, but not to intrude on those activities best left to the states and the people.
We believe that the principal responsibility of the federal government is to guarantee the safety and security of its citizens.
The federal government should safeguard free enterprise, not rig the rules in favor of the politically connected. Fraud should be punished and fair play rewarded, so that every American can choose his or her own vocation and earn the rewards of success.
Health and retirement programs should guarantee real security, not empty promises.
Redistributive policies have failed the poor for decades, so let’s replace these failures with an economy that grows and a safety net that works for a new century.
Let’s have real, innovative reforms such as school choice and job training that gives skills and hope to the poor to reach higher rungs on the ladder of opportunity.
The President’s formulation is strange. For him, this belief in a limited, effective government translates into “you’re on your own” – a Hobbesian state of nature where the strong survive and the weak are pushed off the cliff… and I mean literally, at least in one ad the Left is running against our budget.
According to this view, the only alternative to this cruel society is to give enlightened bureaucrats in Washington more power to control our lives and determine our destinies.
This misplaced faith in a paternalistic government may be sincere – but I cannot imagine a vision of America more cynical.
A government that aspires to equal outcomes undermines the commitment to equal opportunity that is at the heart of the American Idea. As Lincoln said, the purpose of government should be “to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all,” so that all may have the same opportunity to rise.
When times are tough – when businesses are closing and workers are losing their jobs – that’s when this commitment to equal opportunity is called into question.
That’s when the temptation arises to exploit fear and envy. And at this very moment, some in Washington are using the politics of class division to divert attention from their own policy failures.
As these debates rage on, let us carefully consider the wisdom of the Founders, whose high achievement was to make America the greatest and freest nation on earth.
They spoke about equality, but they had the wisdom to ask, what kind of equality should government promote and protect?
Should it encourage upward mobility and strong economic growth for all people?
Or should it divide up a shrinking pie into ever-smaller slices – as long as the slivers are equal?
I believe these approaches are completely opposed to one another, and the best approach is clear: We must always promote equal opportunity by reducing barriers to growth. We must never seek to impose equal outcomes by erecting barriers to success.
Sowing social unrest and class envy – that makes America weaker, not stronger.
Pitting one group against another only distracts us from the true sources of inequity in this country: corporate welfare that enriches the powerful, and empty promises that betray the powerless.
The only class warfare that threatens America comes from a class of bureaucrats and crony capitalists rising above society – calling the shots, rigging the rules, and securing their places of privilege at our expense.
My friends, America deserves a choice – and if it is an honest choice between these two visions, well, then we win, they lose.
Yes, the challenge before us is daunting. The President and his allies will do all in their power to try to make our philosophy of freedom seem radical.
But I believe the President and his party’s leaders are profoundly mistaken.
They are growing increasingly isolated from the American mainstream. They just don’t understand that Americans are seeking political leaders whose solutions are reassuring precisely because they are bold.
The President’s partisans are underestimating the ability of Americans to do basic math. They don’t realize that the sheer magnitude of our challenges has shifted the center of gravity under their feet, putting them at a disadvantage. The history of our own movement shows that we can win these fights – if we are willing to fight them.
As constitutional conservatives, let’s offer Americans the choice they deserve. This is the moment we were made for. It is time to prove that the Founders got it right, both for centuries past and for centuries to come.
Let’s contrast the President’s path to decline with our own path that lifts the debt, promotes prosperity, and restores the greatness of the American Idea.
Let’s stay united. Let’s advance sensible reform where common ground can be reached. But where the President pushes his extremism, let’s make clear how we will do things differently as soon as we take back the Senate and the White House.
If we do that, then we can win this election with a mandate to last a generation – to save this country we love.
Now is the time. Now is the time for choosing our destiny.