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Relaunching A Conservative Ship Of State

With the party conventions and national elections just ahead, many business executives soon will find themselves in a quandary: Do …

With the party conventions and national elections just ahead, many business executives soon will find themselves in a quandary: Do they support candidate A, whose failings are well known to them, or candidate B, who could be worse?

Historically, the answer has been as follows: They support both, and after the election neither one pays much attention. And why should they? Once upon a time, business used to stand for something. At the very least it could be counted on to defend free-market competition. It was a serious and powerful player in Washington. But those days are gone.

Today, too many businesses and their lawyers and lobbyists are more interested in cutting deals than in cutting taxes. They believe in free trade, except in their own industry. They know they’re being regulated to death by the federal nannies, but what the heck, they’ll just pass on the costs to the consumer anyway, so why fight it? They donate large sums of money to politicians and “public interest” groups, but frequently play both sides, or support the wrong people-the ones pushing the hardest for legislation that will make it difficult to make a profit.

And then they wonder why Washington doesn’t take them seriously.

In fact, Washington does take them seriously. It understands that many corporations simply don’t stand for anything. As a result, corporate America gets its due: It’s made the perennial scapegoat. Every problem under the sun, and the burning rays of the sun itself, are blamed on corporate greed.

MUSH MACHINES

The manufacturing sector is not alone. Some of America‘s most principled newspapers-liberal and conservative alike-have become bland imitations of their former selves. The trendsetters of tripe have successfully turned any number of feisty local voices into politically correct mush machines. And they wonder why readership is down.

And the same trend can be seen in the political parties.

At one time, there was little need for think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Progressive Foundation. That’s because the Democratic and Republican parties, and their national candidates, stood for something. And the differences were clear. Now the best we can hope for is the the lesser of two evils.

Though there are spirited exceptions on both sides of the aisle, politics today is played by a professional class not unlike some shortsighted MBAs who run the corporations and the politically correct news business. The President-America‘s chief executive-and many of his top lieutenants are symptomatic of the problem.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that most conservatives today disapprove of the Bush administration. It’s not because of his questionable conservative credentials. It’s because conservatives supported the low-tax, pro-growth policies George Bush claimed to support and got the Massachusetts Miracle of Michael Dukakis instead.

The campaign gives both parties a chance to focus attention on the policies they will pursue to undo the damage they helped create. Whether they will seize the moment is an open question.

America doesn’t need more political mush. It needs a strategy for long-term economic growth: tax cuts for middle-income families as well as investors; real limits on domestic spending (which has been growing at 10 percent per year, even as sharp cuts are being made in the defense budget); a renewed commitment to deregulation; and a vigorous defense both of free trade generally and the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement now under negotiation.

The sad fact is that the U.S. lacks a bold, visionary White House with a firm sense of purpose. And it’s stuck with a Congress more interested in getting re-elected than in finding lasting solutions to any of the problems we face. Such solutions, quite frankly, would make Washington less necessary to the rest of the country.

Washington should not hesitate to look back at the Reagan record if it needs to be reminded of what a successful domestic policy looks like. After all, it was Reagan’s less-kind-and-gentle regime of tax cuts, spending restraint, and deregulation that put America back to work, creating 20 million new jobs and stimulating an explosion of new business starts during the longest peacetime economic expansion in U.S. history.

WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS TO BE SELF-EVIDENT

Most of all, Washington needs to be reintroduced to certain basic conservative truths.

Number One: We need less government interference in our lives, not a new onslaught of economic and social nannyism, as dished up in the Clean Air Act amendments, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Food and Drug Administration’s new assault on pharmaceutical-industry innovation, and the new “civil rights” quota bill.

Number Two: The best way to curb the gluttonous growth of big government is to limit its calorie intake; that means cutting taxes, not increasing them.

Number Three: Every dollar government lifts from the pockets of U.S. workers is one less dollar they have for saving, spending, or investing; and worse, denying them these funds limits their choices-in education, housing, health care, entertainment, you name it.

Number Four. Americans expect a president who has his eye on the future. An economy, like a nation, is profoundly affected by the “vision thing”-for good or for ill. The real “voodoo economics” in America these days is the inconsistency and drift continuing to come from the White House’s economic team.

CONSERVATISM’S BLACK EYE

While the administration’s problems primarily have resulted from the philosophical vacuum in which it lives, the damage has not been limited to its own backyard. By frequently talking conservative, and calling itself conservative-while pursuing or acquiescing to damaging policies that are anything but conservative-the administration has given conservatism a black eye.

As one Fortune 500 CEO-a long-time Republican loyalist-put it to me in a recent letter:

“I am loathe to admit that the long-term economic prospects of this nation may have been better served if Michael Dukakis had been elected in 1988. I doubt his policies would have differed much from those of George Bush on the domestic front, and the inevitable economic decline may have once-and-for-all killed the socialist bogeyman in this country as it has in virtually all other corners of the world.”

The great strength of conservative ideas is not the lip service they are paid by professional pols and corporate hacks, but their appeal to ordinary Americans. Despite the continuing drumbeat they hear from the statists who dominate politics, book publishing, filmmaking, the news business, the academic community, and much of organized religion, the American people still think conservative-even if they don’t identify themselves as conservatives. That’s because they share a critical conservative virtue: down-home common sense. Moreover, they know classical liberalism is a failure.

Conservatives must redefine the policy agenda, as we have done before. At the same time we must rebuild the institutional base needed to make this agenda a reality, in Washington and throughout the nation. If corporate America wants to sit on the sidelines, that’s fine. If companies want to sell out at every opportunity, that’s another matter, because it’s more than just “their business.” It’s our business too-as consumers, shareholders, and taxpayers.


Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D., is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy research institution. He also serves on the boards of several other foundations and research institutes. Dr. Feulner is the author of Conservatives Stalk The House.

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