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Washington, D.C.
November 10, 2008
Heritage Foundation President's Club Address
Edwin J. Feulner, President of The Heritage Foundation

The state of conservatism 2008

Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner delivered these remarks to Heritage members attending the Fall 2008 President's Club Meeting at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, DC.

Good afternoon. Welcome to the fall 2008 meeting of the President's Club. I'm glad to see that we have a number of new members and this is the first time you've attended a President's Club meeting. So I extend a special welcome to you. I'd also like to extend a special welcome to the members of our Young President's club. You represent the newest generation of conservative leaders.

On the off-chance that there might be some confusion on this point, let me explain that "President's Club" doesn't refer to the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It refers to me. I'm Ed Feulner, President of Heritage.

I thank you all for coming. Welcome to Washington.

Well, the election was held six days ago. The results are long since in. Is everybody happy?

I'll take that as a no.

Under the circumstances, I think it's appropriate for conservatives to feel unhappy about the outcome of this election. Very unhappy. And it might be helpful if we take a few moments to wallow in our misery. Consider this:

I could go on with the list of horribles, but that should be enough to have us reaching for the Prozac.

Rather than try to elevate our spirits through chemistry, let's try this: For the next few minutes, let's use our brains and our native good sense as conservatives to appraise the mess we seem to be in.

After all, it isn't as though we haven't been in messes before. Turn your internal clocks back 30 years to the late 1970s. See if you can call up a vivid picture of those times.

Again, I could go on with this recitation. But let me just sum it up by modifying a line from Charles Dickens: "It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times."

We were entitled to feel unhappy then, just as we are entitled to feel unhappy now.

But we are not entitled to despondency and pessimism. Not then, and not now. Despondency and pessimism are a form of self-indulgence that we cannot afford and which cannot be justified by the facts.

Let's try to get clear on what those facts are.

The dark days of the Carter era were not our political destiny. It might have seemed so then, but it plainly wasn't so in hindsight. During those years, we were served with feckless, failed leadership. By the end of that Administration, Americans had grown sick of failure.

So they turned to new leadership. Now, it is a characteristic peculiar to Americans that when we have finally had enough of a bad thing, we turn very decisively. We owe our national origins to that tendency. When the colonists had had enough of British tyranny, they turned decisively and founded a new nation.

In every national crisis since our founding, that distinctive American impulse to create our own destiny has pulled us through.

The Carter era was one of those dark times, and you know where we turned then. We turned to Ronald Reagan, to principled leadership, to conservative leadership, to courageous leadership. Weary of the darkness, we opted for sunrise.

Decisive turns like that don't happen by chance. They cannot be chalked up to luck. When our country strays off course, we, the people, bring it back on course because there are always enough of us with the courage and brains and determination to make it happen.

Well, we're surely off course today. I haven't the slightest doubt that we will get back on course, because there are enough of us with the courage and brains and determination to bring us back on course. Living proof is seated in this auditorium today.

In order to succeed, though, we have to avoid certain errors in our thinking.

Do you remember that 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke? Paul Newman played the lead. Luke was sentenced to a Southern prison camp, where he kept stirring up trouble and trying to escape.

Each time, they would lock him in the box for awhile — solitary confinement. After one stint in the box, he was hauled before the prison boss for a lecture. In a voice that sounded like a dentist drill with a Southern drawl, the boss told Luke, "You're gonna get you mind right. And I mean right."

Well, a lot of conservatives today need to get their mind right. And the first order of business is to stop equating the Republican Party with the conservative movement.

Our opponents on the left are happy to draw this false parallel.

Before the 2006 elections, columnist E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post wrote a column arguing that the GOP was headed for defeat that year. He was right about that part. But listen to his conclusion:

Between now and November, conservative leaders will dutifully try to rally the troops to stave off a Democratic victory. But their hearts won't be in the fight. The decline of conservatism leaves a vacuum in American politics.

Note that phrase: "the decline of conservatism."

According to Dionne, the failures of the Republican Party in 2006 were a failure of the conservative movement.

A couple of months ago, the left-wing American Prospect ran an article titled "The Coming Conservative Crack-up." After describing what he saw as fatal Republican mistakes in the presidential campaign, author Paul Waldman concluded: "In other words, all the pillars that have held up conservatism for so long are crumbling."

There it is again: If the GOP fails, conservatism must be crumbling.

Last spring the New Yorker ran a widely discussed article by George Packer titled "The Fall of Conservatism: Have the Republicans Run Out of Ideas?"

That title commits the same error: Republican failures are interpreted as the fall of conservatism.

Now I expect this from our opponents on the left. They will seize upon any pretext to announce the death of the conservative movement. They've been doing it for decades.

But too many conservatives today are buying into that fallacy. That is a dangerous mistake, because it will sap your will to fight. If you believe that the current sorry state of the GOP is a measure of the health of conservatism, you're bound to conclude that the conservative movement is done for.

If you want to see when conservatives were in trouble, go back 35 years to 1973, the year Heritage set up shop. We were just a handful of people in a few rented rooms. The only Washington conservative think tank anyone knew about was the American Enterprise Institute, which turned out fine research but didn't get involved in policy battles. It deliberately stayed out of them and "above the fray."

At that time there were no cable outlets like Fox News. There was no conservative talk radio, because the Fairness Doctrine was still in effect, preventing conservatives from having their own programs. Rush Limbaugh was a disc jockey. Sean Hannity was in the seventh grade. Laura Ingraham was in the fifth.

Al Gore hadn't invented the Internet, so there were no conservative bloggers exposing the biases of the mainstream media and delivering conservative commentary to millions of readers.

In those days, the conservative movement was in trouble. In fact, it barely existed.

Today the Republican Party is in trouble — serious trouble of its own making. But the conservative movement is not in decline. It is in robust good health and growing stronger with every passing year. Consider some evidence.

In addition to the best-known media that present conservative ideas fairly — including Fox News, hundreds of talk radio programs, and scores of national magazines — conservatives have achieved a staggering presence on the Internet. is the largest conservative portal on the World Wide Web. Visit that site and you'll find links to some 450 conservative columnists; to a hundred partner organizations that include conservative think tanks and other policy organizations; and to more than 8,000 Internet blogs dedicated to every conceivable issue.

Never in our history have conservatives enjoyed more channels of communication buzzing with our ideas and reaching into every corner of America.

And never in our history have we had a more potent source of conservative ideas: I'm referring to the "idea factories" — the conservative think tanks. And your Heritage Foundation is widely recognized as the leader in that category.

We earned that recognition for a number of reasons, and one of the most important is that we have spent decades linking with other conservative organizations, cultivating their growth, and helping them to share resources and coordinate strategy. We do this through our Resource Bank.

Ten years ago at the 1998 annual meeting, the Resource Bank hosted 292 individuals representing 175 organizations. This year we registered 708 individuals representing 386 organizations in 52 countries. More than 200 of those individuals were presidents and CEOs of conservative organizations.

Years ago our late friend and Heritage Trustee Tom Roe had the idea of starting state-based conservative think tanks, patterned after Heritage but concentrating on state and local issues. He put up seed money to start the first ones.

In 1992 Tom founded the State Policy Network so these groups could share their expertise and learn from each other's mistakes and successes. At that time there were only about a dozen state-level conservative think tanks.

Ten years ago the number had reached 36 think tanks in 34 states, with a combined budget of about $15 million. Today there are 55 state think tanks in all 50 states with a combined budget approaching $60 million. And those numbers continue to grow.

Now I mention these details because they illustrate just how serious a mistake it is to equate the Republican Party with the conservative movement. With those details in mind — and I've only touched the surface here today — listen again to that line I quoted from Paul Waldman: "All the pillars that have held up conservatism for so long are crumbling."

That is nonsense.

The pillars that hold up conservatism are not the leaders of the Republican Party. Conservatism is sustained and nurtured primarily in the institutions of civil society.

Conservatism is kept alive in our families; in our religious institutions; in our businesses; in the mass media — including radio, television, and the Internet; in charitable and civic organizations of endless variety; in hundreds of think tanks and allied organizations operating at the national level and state level; among thousands of principled conservative experts in every field of policy work; and among millions of principled conservatives like you.

These are the pillars that hold up conservatism, and they are not crumbling.

The conservative movement still encompasses all the differing schools that it has encompassed since World War II. But those differences haven't crippled us with division and strife. Conservatives are working cooperatively, in larger networks than ever before.

Despite the results of the election, America remains essentially a center-right nation, with a conservative outlook on core issues.

Twice as many Americans still identify themselves as conservatives than as liberals.

Asked by the Gallup Poll whether government should redistribute wealth more evenly or improve the overall economy to create jobs, 84 percent of Americans chose the latter. Even among Democrats, only 17 percent said government should redistribute wealth.

Asked by the Pew organization about the main causes of the financial crisis, 79 percent of Americans said the main factor was people taking on more debt than they could afford.

These aren't positions on policies. They reflect underlying values that are essentially conservative on such questions as the basic functions of government and the personal virtues of working and living within our means.

Those values are not consistent with the left's agenda, which is why you heard Barack Obama emphasizing tax cuts rather than the enormous costs of his liberal proposals.

Look at our popular culture and you will see still more roots of conservatism.

Americans are still a people who feel a sense of reverence and gratitude when we hear songs with titles like:

We are still a nation that pauses tomorrow on Veterans Day, on Independence Day, on Memorial Day, and on Thanksgiving to thank God for the blessings of freedom.

Visit any town in America, and you will find memorials and monuments erected to honor the troops who fought and died for our country. These are tangible expressions of our understanding that freedom isn't free, that we must always fight to preserve it. They are tangible expressions of conservative values.

Conservatives today command enormous resources for presenting and defending our ideas. The underlying conservative sentiments of the American people offer the potential for those ideas to take root.

But realizing that potential is a huge challenge. Both political parties have failed us, but the greatest default lies with the Republican Party. It failed not by embracing the wrong principles but by abandoning its principles — conservative principles.

That is why The Heritage Foundation has embarked on our 10-year Leadership for America campaign. Now more than ever, we must stand by our principles and teach them to the widest possible audience. We must revive broader understanding and respect for the timeless truths that are the foundations of American life.

As you may know, this year we increased our operating budget by about 50 percent. A large part of that increase is funding a greatly expanded effort to deliver our ideas to wider audiences. We are placing ads on radio programs that reach tens of millions of Americans. We're holding more Heritage events around the country to engage local leaders and build the grassroots to demand greater accountability from Washington.

We have marketing and communications experts who maintain close working relationships with producers at national radio and television outlets — including those of the mainstream media. That's a capacity we have nurtured over many years, and it is going to pay big dividends in the current policy environment.

Given the results of the election, it's obvious that Congress and the White House won't be receptive to many conservative ideas. So we'll be playing a great deal more defense. And there will be plenty of defense to play as liberals try to redistribute wealth, abolish the right of workers to cast secret ballots on union elections, nationalize health care, bankrupt energy companies that use coal — the list just goes on and on.

But there's good news here, too. Conservative are better equipped than ever before to play defense. We have analytical resources like our Center for Data Analysis; we have a vibrant network of allied organizations that can be mobilized very quickly when policy issues come to a head; we have a virtual army of bloggers who can alert tens of millions of Americans literally within hours. And we have some of the best educated and most experienced policy experts in the world.

This isn't a time for despondency. It is a time for optimism.

This isn't a time to look backward with regret. We need to look forward with hope and purpose and commitment.

Now isn't the time to let political setbacks drain our resolve. It is the time to remember that progress doesn't follow a straight line. Setbacks are a natural part of gaining ground.

I've taken some pains today to distinguish the conservative movement from the Republican Party. But I didn't do that on the assumption that you don't understand that distinction.

You plainly do understand it. That is why you're gathered here today as members of The Heritage Foundation. You unite under that banner because you understand that we are not politicians who will abandon your ideals. You trust Heritage to remain a principled conservative institution that will defend your ideals.

You show your trust with your generous financial support — and without that, we couldn't operate.

So I want to take this opportunity to thank you most sincerely. Thank you for remaining committed to your conservative ideals.

Thank you for investing your time and energy and money in the cause of preserving those ideals.

You are doing some of the most noble work a citizen of this country can do, and I salute you for it.

I know that some of you are feeling dispirited right now. Disastrous elections can do that. My message to you today can be summed up in three words: Stay the course.

That isn't easy to do at times like this, so I want to close with a little story about determination. I'm sure you've heard it before. It's a timely reminder of the power of determination when the odds appear to be against us.

Back in December 1920, a young man named George Gipp had reached a pinnacle of achievement. Gipp was in his fourth year at Notre Dame. He entered school as a boy who had never played sports. He finished as one of the greatest college football players of all time.

And now he was dying of an infectious disease. His old coach Knute Rockne went to pay him his last visit. And as legend has it, Gipp said to Rockne: ''I've got to go, Rock. It's all right. I'm not afraid. But some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys — tell them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper." The following day, George Gipp died.

For the next eight years, Rockne kept those words to himself. When he finally revealed them, it was exactly 80 years ago today. On the afternoon of November 10, 1928, Notre Dame was pitted against Army at Yankee Stadium. In those days, Army was the greatest rival of the Fighting Irish.

Notre Dame was having its worst season in Rockne's career. His team was riddled with injuries. And Army was undefeated. The prospects looked miserable, and the Fighting Irish didn't have much fight in them. Kind of the way many conservatives are feeling right about now.

Well, you know how the game turned out. Notre Dame beat Army. The Fighting Irish didn't win because they had a playbook and strategies for playing offense and defense. They needed those things, yes. But they won because they were able to summon up an unshakeable determination to fight and win against great odds.

Old Knute awakened that determination in them with his famous pre-game speech, which was reported in the New York News as follows:

"The day before he died," Rockne told them, "George Gipp asked me to wait until the situation seemed hopeless — and then ask a Notre Dame team to go out and beat Army for him. This is the day, and you are the team."

Conservatives today aren't playing a game. Policymaking ain't football. The outcome of our efforts won't be determined in the course of a day or even a year. But success will depend on our unfailing will to succeed.

Do not accept failure as our destiny. Never, ever do that. Fix in your minds and resolve in your hearts that we will all stand united and defend our priceless legacy of freedom.

Don't just make a mental note to do that later. Make it a fully conscious commitment, and do it on a date certain.

Today is the day.

We are the team.

And we will prevail.

Thank you.

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