Obamanation: A Day of Truth
Accuracy in Media Conference 9/21/2012
Speaker: Artur Davis
“Not Winning Ugly: How Conservatives can Persuade”
Transcribed by J. C. Hendershot & Bethany Stotts
ARTUR DAVIS: Thank you. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much. Roger, thank you very much for bringing us here today. You know, ladies and gentlemen, I am usually not happy to follow Pat Caddell on a platform, but the way I look at it is this: Pat does two things that are undeniable. First of all, Pat has much more information content than coffee, and livens people up much more effectively. Second of all, since I am often introduced—a lot of people start out by producing me as the person who seconded Barack Obama’s nomination four years ago, and that just creates a sour tone in many rooms that I speak in right now. So it’s good to follow Caddell, because if I can overcome nominating Obama—you know, he certainly managed to overcome responsibility for Jimmy Carter and George McGovern. So it makes me feel a little bit better.
Let me begin, Roger, first of all by thanking you. For anybody who’s streaming online and anybody who’s kind of, you know, for whatever reason, wandering across the Internet and they find this event today, and they want to know exactly what this event is about, I think it serves a very, very simple purpose: I don’t think there’s a person in this room who has any illusion that the media—the establishment version of it, the version of it that most Americans are exposed to in terms of what they see online, the paper that they pick up in their hand, what they see on TV—I don’t think anyone of us in this room would dispute the fact that, amazingly, the truth does not always make it through the filters I just described. As someone who’s spent a chunk of my time in politics, and another part of my time before that being a practicing lawyer, litigating cases in courtrooms, I kind of have this crazy belief that if people are informed they consistently will make the right choices. When they are not informed, when the informational deck is stacked in some way, well—no surprise—they’ll often make the wrong choices.
So I don’t know if there are any of the many speakers you would hear from today, I don’t know that any two of us would agree on the same topic or approach the same topic in the same way. This is not a panel of people who all think the same, or talk the same, or have the same ideas today. But I think that we would all share one common value, and it’s this: Well, the first value we share is, obviously, a faith in our country, and its vitality. The second value we would share is this: The American people need to know more about what is happening in this city that we sit in right now. Too much of what happens in Washington, D.C. happens under a fog—and, in the spirit of Pat Caddell, I don’t mind telling you that that fog exists no matter no what party runs this town. The reason there’s a Tea Party right now in the United States is because that fog also existed under a Republican presidency, that informational fog. The reason discontent is so strong in this country right now is because the fog did not lift under a Democratic presidency. You could make a case, ladies and gentlemen, for much of the last 25 years, this town has operated under a fog, and ordinary people don’t have access to what’s inside it. So the spirit of AIM, and the spirit of this conference, is to try to lift that fog a little bit, and to let some sunlight in.
Now, having said that, let me start with a very straightforward proposition: I do not think that conservatism is a perfect philosophy—not one of us in this room does—because there are no perfect philosophies in the political world. But I will also say to you, conservatism has nothing to be apologetic or defensive about. Now, I make that point, yes, because the establishment media very much argues to the contrary, I make that point because the pundits in D.C. very much argue to the contrary, but ladies and gentlemen, look at this country’s recent history.
If you think the United States is in some distressed place right now, if you think the United States is in some valley right now, I want you to think back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when this country literally appeared to be losing its way, domestically and abroad. We appeared to be coming undone: Inflation was hyperinflation, interest rates were near 20%, unemployment was as high as it is today, and, for the only time in the post-war era, in the late 1970s, the United States and the forces of freedom were on the wane around the world and the forces of authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and Communism were on the rise. This country looked to be in danger in the late 1970s in a way that, I would submit to you, dwarfs most of what we face today.
What rescued us was not just our good luck.
What rescued us wasn’t just serendipity.
What rescued us was a very effective leader who took the philosophy of conservatism, and who made it ambitious—and made it more ambitious than it had ever been. Ronald Reagan’s conservatism ought to remind everybody in this room that we have nothing to be defensive about.
We are more than capable of describing, based on our recent history, why free markets are the best way for closing the gaps between the high and low of this society. We are perfectly capable of describing why market-oriented reforms will do better to strengthen this society, and keep it cohesive, than reforms that solely depend on the government and public power. We are perfectly capable of describing, based on our own experience, why a low-tax, relatively unregulated environment will empower American businesses to grow and to roar and to create jobs. As I walked in here, ladies and gentlemen, and thought about what this building, the Heritage Foundation, represents, I looked at a sign that, perhaps, you saw on the wall. This building is dedicated to the proposition that within these United States we can have prosperity, freedom, opportunity, and civil society.
Ladies and gentlemen, I would submit to you that that is an ambitious enough vision that we don’t have to run from it. We don’t have to apologize for it, we simply have to reclaim it, and we have to own it. But now, here’s the tougher thing that I want to say to you: Whenever I talk to a group of conservatives, I recognize that I’m talking to a group of people who, in some cases, think that our mission is a very specific one—namely, the defense of liberty. May I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, that is an intensely important part of this mission. Anyone who’s read of places that lost their liberty and freedom can attest to that. Watch Marco Rubio give a speech. Hear the steel and fire burn in his voice when he talks about what his grandparents lost in Cuba. Talk to some of your relatives who know when the light closed on freedom in Russia, and in Germany. It’s an intensely important thing, defending freedom. Well, ladies and gentlemen, remember the sign on the wall at this building: Freedom, prosperity, opportunity, and a civil society. If freedom were the only part of the mission, this building would be one-fourth less ambitious—or three-fourths less ambitious—than it actually is.
Our history tells us that Ronald Reagan didn’t just preserve freedom, ladies and gentlemen, in the 1980s. He strengthened freedom, and he strengthened liberty, and he made freedom and liberty work for people who had not necessarily previously appreciated its virtue. Ronald Reagan took liberty and freedom, which are very imaginative concepts, and he gave them a power they had never had before. The last thing that Ronald Reagan stood for is a conservatism that is just about stopping things. We do have to spend a lot of our time, on the political Right, trying to stop things. Many of you deserve enormous credit for standing in the breach and helping to stop things in this city in the last several years. But may I be bold enough to say, ladies and gentlemen: Conservatism is too dynamic, conservatism is too vibrant, for it to simply be about stopping things. Ronald Reagan won 60% percent of the vote, or just south of that, in 1984. Won every state except Walter Mondale’s Minnesota, and that was 50.5% to 49.5%. Won places where Republicans had never won; moved blue collar voters, working class voters, who had previously seen the Republican party as a royalist party, firmly into the Republican ranks; took 18- to 29-year-olds, who had nothing in common with the oldest man in recent memory to seek the Presidency, and made them idealists and Reaganites, and made them idealists for his cause. He could not have done that if his conservatism had simply been about stopping things.
I think Ronald Reagan started something. I think he started the idea of a country that could grow and be prosperous and equal because of the power of private markets. Liberalism had owned the idea of equality in opportunity before Ronald Reagan came along, in many circles, and then he reached out and snatched it from them. Liberalism had owned the idea of social mobility in many circles until Ronald Reagan reached out and snatched it from them, and said, “We can compete in this space, and we can win here, too.” If I can quote to you, ladies and gentlemen, when Ronald Reagan left the Presidency in January, 1989, he gave his farewell address. It’s customary: All Presidents give their farewell addresses as they leave, and, provided they don’t pardon so many controversial people it’s overwhelmed, it’s the last consequential thing people remember about them. Toward the end of his farewell address, he reminded people that he had often closed his speeches and campaigns with a peroration about America being a shining city on a hill. In his last major speech as President of the United States, he said to America, “I’ve spoken of the shining city . . . but I often did not tell people what I saw when I looked inside it.” He said:
“This is what I saw. In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teaming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
I would submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, the Left does not dispute the power of those words. They simply have the audacity, if you will, to think they can deliver on that vision better than conservatism can. Well, I think they’re wrong.
The city can’t hum with creativity and commerce if you demonize people who succeed in the city. You can’t build harmony in the city if, when you look at Americans, all you see is people who live in boxes. You can’t have a God-inspired city if you’re in court litigating against faith, and if the platform committee of your party has to be reminded of the value of including a reference to God in it—and if they have to debate that on the floor, it makes you wonder something.
And you cannot have doors that are open, ladies and gentlemen, unless you empower people to stay strong once they walk through those doors—because let me share with you one major flaw of liberalism: They believe in opening doors, too—but what happens when you walk through a door and you don’t have enough skills? Or enough education? Or enough responsibility in the community around you? The first strong economic gust will blow you back through the door. The first strong, bad turn of the tide will cut you off and you’ll fly right back out the door you walked in. They believe, on the Left, in opening doors. We believe in strengthening people so when that they walk through those doors, they have the power to stay inside the room. We don’t have to guess about this: We have a track record of our policies working.
But may I close with something else? I listened last night on YouTube to another Reagan speech. It’s the speech that he gave in Kansas city the night that he lost the nomination to Gerald Ford in 1976, the last time for the—history buffs in the room—there’s been a real fight at a political convention. Ronald Reagan was the last person who spoke; President Ford was gracious enough to call him to the stage, after narrowly beating him a few hours earlier, to ask him to close things out. Ronald Reagan said that night, toward the end of his comments, “I recognize that I’m talking to a room full of Republicans,” but we can’t just talk to each other. It’s a natural thing for him to say, because he had been a Democrat until he was 43 years of age, and had campaigned against Richard Nixon and for Harry Truman. But may I close with that, ladies and gentlemen? We cannot just talk to each other.
If the only thing we do is talk to each other, we might convince ourselves that the sole and extent of our mission is protecting freedom. If the only thing we do is talk to each other, we might convince ourselves that the opportunity, prosperity, civil society part doesn’t matter as much. You know why? Because freedom has worked very well for all of us. It’s worked well for most of us in this room, and for most people who will find this online to watch it. But there happen to be a group of Americans, ladies and gentlemen, many of whom are very conservative, many of whom are people of faith, many of whom are people of an incredible industrious work ethic—yes, they value their freedom enormously, but they got up this morning free, and didn’t have a job to return to. They got up this morning free, and see the factories shuttered in their communities. They got up this morning free, and sat with their children around the table before they went off to school, and it occurred to them that in a few years, that child will need to be in college somewhere if he has, she has, a chance to compete and be successful and they wondered how they’re going to afford it. They’re free but anxious. They can be ours, but they have to hear from us on the prosperity and opportunity side.
May I also submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, if we just talk to each other, we will have the luxury of yelling a lot. We’ll have the luxury of, frankly, talking about the Left the way they talk about us—and I’d be the first to tell you, the Left demonizes the political Right right now. The Left is intense in its opposition to the political Right. You know that. You don’t have to watch MSDNC to know that. They are intense in the ferocity of their opposition to the political Right, and what a temptation we have to just match it. The only problem is, if we were only talking to each other, we could just shout as much as they do, and be as offensive as they are, and yell as much as they are, and indulge ourselves, and feel pretty good about it.
But here’s the problem: There are a chunk of people out there—some of them may wander across this today on the Internet—and they will ask themselves the question, Some of them sound angry, and then they’ll think about their lives, they’ll think about the children they saw around their table this morning, they’ll think about their anxiety about whether or not those children can afford college, they’ll think about the things Wall Street and Washington have done to them, and they will wonder in all candor, I have something I could be angry about the American dream being taken away from me. I see they’re angry. What are they doing to fix what’s wrong in my life?
So, ladies and gentlemen, may we resist the temptation to only talk to each other, and to only try to outshout, and out-hate, and out-compete the opposition. We Can Do Better Than That. We can make a case, as Ronald Reagan said that night in 1976—and there were a lot fewer Republicans, and a lot fewer conservatives then than there are now—Ronald Reagan said, that night in Kansas City in 1976, that we can make an appeal to all manner of Americans who are looking for a new cause, who are looking for a new standard, but we cannot do it if we only talk to each other. May we judge our conservatism by its capacity to win arguments over the public good. May we judge our conservatism by its capacity to reach people who are not in the room with us, who will not be in the room with us, and who do not see the world as we do.
Thank you very much.
ARONOFF: Any questions? Go ahead.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: A few comments about the [unintelligible] being on the Left, coming over to the other side. Also [unintelligible] positive people have been coming after on the other side. [Unintelligible].
DAVIS: There are. The question, for those who couldn’t hear it, is, “How do we get Democrats who are still stuck in the closet, and make them be Republicans?” if I can paraphrase you, and, kind of, “How did I get where I am?” Well, you know, let me, given the fact that Roger’s trying to keep us on time, give you a really brief answer on this. I don’t have any one epiphany moment that I can give you. I wish I did. But I will give you something that I noticed about the Democratic Party in 2011, 2012, and 2010: I saw the Democratic Party just get smaller and smaller. I saw a party that used to have a right, a center, and yes, a left, all of a sudden saw off its right wing and saw off its center wing. I felt that party was speaking for fewer and fewer Americans. I think there’s a reason Democratic Party ID peaked at 51% at the end of 2008, and today it’s around 42%. Frankly, it’s higher now than it was before their convention in Charlotte.
The reality is, millions of American people have traveled the same path I have. You know, people talk about me because I used to be an elected official. The reality is—and you know some of these folks—there are millions of Americans who made the same transition I have. They just don’t get to speak at these kinds of forums, they don’t get invited to give any lectures, but there are millions of us who made this transition.
As for your second question, “How do we get them?” That’s what I tried to talk about to you today, frankly. We cannot just talk to ourselves! I think we have this crazy illusion sometimes—and the Left has it too, but we share part of this—we have this illusion that we can just talk to ourselves. And it feels very good when you talk to yourself: You hear so much wisdom, you generally like what you see in the mirror, it feels so good when you talk to yourself—but you don’t persuade when you talk to yourself. So I think we’ve just got to always understand that our conversations are being seen by people who, frankly, have different stakes than we do, and we have to speak to their stakes in society.
ARONOFF: A couple more questions. Go ahead, Cliff.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: One of the points of this conference is to figure out a way to get this conservative message out through these liberal media filters. I’d appreciate your views on that. It’s great to say, “We need to be talking to all these people out there.” We’re trying to do our best, and it’s difficult.
And then, secondly, as someone who was here during the ’80s, and covered the Reagan presidency, I appreciated your trip down memory lane—but we don’t have a Reagan today. [Mitt] Romney is not Reagan. So, what’s the point?
DAVIS: Two excellent questions. No, Romney is not Reagan: God made one of those. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from Reagan. I think that we can learn everything we need to know about saving and strengthening conservatism if you spend a lot of time reading Ronald Reagan. For some of these young people in this room—some of these folks in this room who are in their 20s, who are thinking about becoming a public life you may want to live, I assure you, ladies and gentlemen, who may be out there, you will learn everything you need to know if you spend just a little bit of time reading what Ronald Reagan had to say about this country, because, in an incredible manner, he managed to describe how to create a dynamic conservatism, and I think that’s the key: Conservatism’s got to be dynamic. Conservatism has got to have a sense of empathy and a sense of engagement with all manner of people in this society. Conservatism cannot just be a defense of things as they are now. Some of you may think that’s what the word “conservatism” means. Conservatism has never been that narrow. It’s the Left that wants you to think conservatism is this narrow thing that doesn’t speak to our broader aspirations.
In terms of how we break through the filter, here’s something that ought to give every one of us confidence: When Walter Cronkite was doing the CBS Evening News, roughly 30 million Americans watched him on a peak night. Even toward the end of his career, there’d be about 20 million people watching him. Americans had very few places to go to get their information. Fast forward to the modern era: More people, during the summer, watched the TNT remake of Dallas than watched Scott Pelley on a given night. If he’s watching this, I’m going to hurt his feelings, but those are just the numbers. Twice as many people watched The Voice two nights ago as watched Diane Sawyer. They don’t matter as much as they used to matter. That’s just the reality. Think about it: The New York Times—their own ombudsman says that their liberalism permeates their newsroom. Their own ombudsman says that they treat the liberal agenda as a cause to be nurtured instead of something to be inspected or analyzed. Their own ombudsman said that. Some of you read The Washington Post; they make it very clear where they’re coming from on all the issues of the day, as Pat Caddell pointed out to you. You have the TV news networks, who make it clear where they’re coming from. MSNBC is “MSDNC.” You have all manner of mainstream media organs that make it clear where they’re coming from. Here’s the reality: People are not watching them anymore! People are not reading them anymore! And you know the proof of this? 40% of Americans, right now, call themselves “conservatives,” 22% call themselves “liberals.” That could not be the case if the establishment media had the power over the way we process things that they think they have, or wish they had, or used to have. So, again, let’s not despair too much over this in a country where the Right outnumbers the Left two to one.
Any last questions? I’ll be short on my answer.
ARONOFF: One more. Jim?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: Yes, sir. I’ll just sort of echo what Cliff said, but maybe get into specifics a little more. For example—you know, in I know I live up in the Baltimore area, and have been involved in many campaigns. I always urge campaigners to go into the inner city. We’ve been asked to go into the inner city. Nobody does it. Some people say that they have done it, but the full truth of the matter is, what they do is they go in through the established networks which the Democrat Party has created and built up, and paid immensely to maintain—so those people go in through those networks, because they’re the only ones they know, and get a polite listening-to, and then everybody laughs as soon as they leave, pocketing the walk-around money as they’re going. So, those are the kind of specific sort of things that we need to get around also. Do you have any thoughts on that?
DAVIS: I do. For those who couldn’t hear him at the beginning, the reason his voice fell off is, he said he’s was a Republican in Baltimore, and he’s used to whispering when he says that—so he just naturally couldn’t help it!
You know, that is a great point and I honestly wish we had more time to talk about it. But here’s the brief of it.
Point one: when Republicans and conservatives go into—you said “the inner city,” I’ll say “the African-American community.” First of all, understand this much: The African-American community is a community that is socially conservative, but votes on economic issues. May I be blunt with you, ladies and gentlemen? For 40 years the African-American communities has been the most pro-life community in this country, and there’s not a Republican in America who’s gotten a vote based on that. The Republican Party is the community that, today, next to white men over 60, is the most resistant community to same-sex marriage, is the community most committed to preserving marriage as we know it. I would say there’s not a Republican in the country that’s going to get a vote based on that. Do not have this myth or illusion that you can get African-American votes on the cheap simply by being social conservatives, for the old-fashioned reason that it’s not worked. The African American community wants to hear a case that I think conservatives can make: That markets create upward mobility.
I know conservatives can make a case that educational accountability is our enterprise, not the enterprise of the Left. The school teachers who are depriving children in Illinois of education a few days ago, someone said they were striking. No, they were depriving kids of an education—that’s what they were doing. I think that we have an opportunity to say to African-Americans, “Do you want your children in schools where the worst teachers cannot be removed? Do you want your children in schools where bureaucrats matter more than you? Or do you want a system that allows you to send your kids to a better school, and makes you—and not federal judges or bureaucrats—the arbiter of where your children are going to school?” I think they will embrace that.
Final point: I think the beauty, or one of the beauties, of conservatism when it comes to race—conservatism has found a way of talking about America that doesn’t begin by putting Americans in boxes. I have friends in the African-American community who say, “Well, I don’t hear Republicans talking enough about how they’re going to serve the African-American agenda.” A reporter asked me, a few weeks ago, “Tell me how Governor Romney is going to help African-Americans?” I told one reporter, “Every time I hear Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan say the word ‘Americans,’ excuse me, but I feel included. Excuse me, but when they say ‘Americans,’ I don’t think, Oh, gee, they don’t mean me.” So conservatism understands that—and may conservatism never retreat from that. I don’t ever want to see conservatism practice the empty politics of showing up in the black community with their “black agenda,” or showing up and saying, “Here are our four program points for black people.” I don’t ever want to see conservatism walk that path. I want to see conservatism be a path that says, “We are about strengthening America,” because when I hear the word “American,” I hear myself included in that.
Thank you all, ladies and gentlemen.