In politics, nothing matters more than ideas. Ideas matter. Ideas have consequences.
Look at what's happening with Obamacare. It's a failure not just of a law, but of an idea, and a set of assumptions about government's ability to solve problems.
No matter how many times this idea has been discredited, it always re-emerges, and crawls out of the ash heap of history.
What we are seeing today is the timeless struggle between freedom and tyranny. This is the same struggle out of which our nation was born.
At our founding, we rejected the idea that the King or the State could micromanage our lives. Today, we're seeing the consequences of the idea that the state and the central planners in Washington can control the health care economy for 300 million Americans.
As we celebrate the 160th anniversary of the founding of the Republican Party in Exeter, N.H., you all are familiar with this struggle.
New Hampshire has long been at the front lines of this battle. You should be very proud of what you’ve done to defend this idea called America.
Now, more than ever, the country needs your wisdom, judgment, and discernment as we face the challenges and opportunities ahead.
I’m optimistic about our prospects because the unraveling of not just Obamacare, but decades of left-wing Big Government ideology is going to give us, as Republicans, a historic opening to make our case to the American people.
Tonight I want to spend a few minutes talking about what that case might look like. I believe there are three things we need to do in order to win.
First, we need an inspiring vision and purpose. People need to know what we are for, not just what we oppose.
Second, we need courageous and principled leadership — leadership that puts political self-interest behind the interest of the nation.
We need a politics of unity, not division. In politics, it is easy to divide. Real leadership unites Americans with a common vision and purpose.
Third, and finally, we need smart strategies and tactics.
In order to articulate a vision and purpose, we need to reapply the wisdom of our founders to the challenges of today.
In 1788, Thomas Jefferson said, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.”
That was true in the centuries before Jefferson and it has been true in the two centuries since Jefferson. The party that aligns itself with that reality — which is the reality of the human condition in a fallen world – will be the party that succeeds in this century.
What’s brilliant about Jefferson’s statement is it works in reverse. As government yields, you — We the People — gain ground.
In the Senate, I’m known as a "budget hawk" and "Dr. No" — and sometimes worse names — but my mission has never been just about numbers. It’s been about freedom and individuals — my grandchildren and yours. I believe that limited government liberates individuals.
We also have to understand that, while politics is about ideas, it’s also about choices and competition. On the left, they play to win. Too often we play to not lose. And, sometimes, we tackle the wrong team.
The reality is, the left is more disciplined and often more united. They approach political battles with a religious devotion I would call progressive fundamentalism.
If you question their dogma, they will call you evil and come after you with the IRS. We shouldn’t respond in kind, but we do need to be equally focused and determined.
On the right, our goal is to limit government and liberate individuals. We want to seize power so we can limit power, and set people free.
Our faith isn’t in government but in free individuals and the rights endowed to them by their Creator. Our agenda is a freedom agenda and a belief that, when people are free to make the most of their talents and opportunities, we all prosper.
So, while the Left’s big idea is government, our big idea is freedom. If we’re going to succeed we’re going to have to oppose with all of our strength the relentless assault against individual liberty from Washington, and offer a positive and compelling vision of our own.
This is a battle we should invite and welcome. Freedom and liberty are the high ground in the timeless fight about the proper scope of government.
Our advantage is that our ideas work. Theirs don’t.
In every area of our economy we see this principle at work: The best way to make something expensive is for government to make it "affordable." That’s especially true in health care and education.
Since 1976, education spending has doubled but test scores have stagnated. We’ve spent $2.4 trillion but we’re not better off.
In health care, we’ve spent trillions on government programs that produce worse outcomes than the free market.
Plus, one in every three dollars — or $750 billion — doesn’t help anyone get well or prevent them from getting sick.
And in spite of “investing” hundreds of billions of dollars in so-called economic stimulus, wages for the middle class are less than what they were 1989.
As a columnist for the Washington Post said, “that isn’t a lost decade for economic gains for Americans. It is a lost generation.”
So, our first goal is to persistently and persuasively articulate a freedom agenda to counter the left’s government agenda.
The second and third goals are connected. We desperately need sacrificial leaders who have the wisdom and courage to pursue strategies that serve the country rather than themselves.
We need political leaders who would rather lose an election than lose a generation. As leaders in this process, those are the people you should elevate.
As you all know better than most, in politics, it’s very easy to tell people what they want to hear. It’s much harder to show them the benefits of freedom and then to build a coalition to get them there.
That’s why I wasn’t a fan of the strategy to shut down the government in order to try to defund Obamacare. I warned my Senate colleagues months in advance their strategy wouldn’t work.
I told them we didn’t have the power to force the president to defund his signature achievement. We only had the power to shut down the government.
And I told them that, even if we shut down the government, we would not shut down Obamacare -- it would still be funded during a government shutdown, and it was.
I also warned that the fight itself would be a divisive distraction, and it was. We took the nation’s focus off of the disastrous Obamacare launch and shined a spotlight on our own disastrous tactics.
I want to applaud New Hampshire's Sen. Kelly Ayotte for publicly opposing this strategy. Her position was the best way to stand for freedom and against Obamacare.
New Hampshire is lucky to have her in the Senate, and it’s an honor to serve with her. She’s not only brilliant; she has common sense — a rare commodity in Washington — and character. She has a deep rudder.
She approaches the nation’s business with courage, humility and good judgment. She’s highly respected by her peers and also doesn’t apologize for being willing to compromise when she can’t get 100 percent of what she wants.
In that sense, she’s a true constitutional conservative. Our constitution, after all, was a brilliant and principled compromise.
If our nation is going to survive, we can’t be afraid to employ the very form of compromise that created our nation in order to save our nation.
If the freedom agenda is going to succeed we can’t be divided by strategy and tactics. Too much is at stake. Spirited debates are healthy, but political opportunism is not.
Any strategy that begins with the assumption that people like me, Rep. Paul Ryan, Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Ayotte are for Obamacare because we opposed a flawed strategy is ludicrous and gives the media the story about infighting they love to write.
Make no mistake. The shutdown was not a battle between the true opponents of Obamacare and the so-called Establishment.
It was a fight between a handful of Washington, D.C., interest groups and a few politicians, and the rest of the conservative movement. It was an episode we should never repeat.
Fortunately, there are good examples of strategic success to draw from that unifies reform-minded Republicans.
The first example is earmarks. A few years ago, members of Congress, including far too many Republicans, were spending billions of dollars and an inordinate amount of time chasing earmarks — special projects for their districts and states.
As recently as 2010, members of Congress requested nearly 40,000 earmarks estimated to cost $131 billion. At that time, I had been fighting against earmarks — which I called the gateway drug to Congress’ spending addiction — for more than a decade.
I was told I would never succeed and I was tilting at windmills. But guess what? Thanks to an outpouring of voter disgust and smart tactics, we won. The windmill fell over.
We’re now living under an earmark ban, and the number of earmarks has gone from 16,000 a year to almost zero.
Tactically, we did a few things correctly. First, we picked our targets wisely and understood that in any struggle, victory is usually gradual and incremental.
In World War II, for instance, our generals didn’t invade Japan. Instead, they used an island-hopping strategy. In Europe, we didn’t mount a paratroop drop over Berlin. Instead, we secured a beachhead at Normandy.
On earmarks, we didn’t promise to defund or end earmarks at once. Instead, we picked vulnerable targets like the "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska that represented Washington’s excess.
Even though we lost a 2005 vote to defund the Bridge to Nowhere in the Senate by 82-15, we won the argument decisively in the public square.
Second, we used persuasion and facts with our colleagues rather than demagoguery and deception. We didn’t attack individual politicians — we attacked projects.
We persuaded our colleagues that earmarks weren’t consistent with our values as public servants, and weren’t consistent with an agenda that promotes freedom and liberty.
Again, for me, that fight wasn’t about numbers. It was people and their freedom. As Republicans, we should reject the notion that politicians know best where to spend taxpayer funds, regardless of which party they represent.
It’s simple. We don’t know best. You know best. The effective legislator isn’t the one who sends money back to the state; it’s the one who keeps money from leaving the state, and the pockets of free people.
The fight also wasn’t just about getting rid of earmarks — the gateway drug — it was about limiting government in other areas as well. I would argue getting rid of earmarks led to another success story.
After the 2010 elections, conservatives demanded spending cuts in exchange for a debt limit increase. We made a simple and clear argument that it was foolish to simply increase the debt limit without dealing with the underlying problem of overspending.
We won that debate. Even though the Budget Control Act gave us sequestration — we should be making targeted, not across-the-board cuts — we have cut spending two years in a row for the first time since the end of the Korean War.
The end of earmarks and the spending caps are two great success stories and unlikely reversals in the course of government.
We didn’t just talk about cutting spending. We did it. We made government yield and allowed freedom to reclaim a little more of its rightful place in our society.
The challenge before us now is to keep on winning by picking the right targets, and by having a positive vision that restores confidence in our country.Sen. Tom Coburn is a Republican from Oklahoma. He delivered these remarks in New Hampshire Nov. 8, on the 160th birthday of the Republican Party. Go here for the text of the complete speech.