As the 2016 presidential election approaches, I feel uninspired by the Republican candidates who appear most likely to be pursuing the nation's highest office. With Democrats having at least one candidate who will likely be able to unite their base, I fear that Republicans may once again be without a visionary leader to guide us to victory in 2016 and the nation toward prosperity thereafter. This fear though could be mitigated if we were to reflect on and return to the party of purpose that defined us in the 1980s and 1990s. With renewed purpose, we can restore opportunity in America.
It was this belief in American opportunity and the need for reform that was well captured on September 22, 1994, when Newt Gingrich took to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to introduce his colleagues and the nation to the Republicans' "Contract with America." While shedding light on the Republicans' policy agenda, Gingrich made clear that the Contract did not contain any negative comments about Democrats or their leaders, but rather it was "an effort on our part to be positive." Gingrich explained that this positive focus was necessary, because people were tired of the chorus of negativity that had come to define politics in the early 1990s. Speaking from the floor he said, "Let us have a debate between ideas, but let us not have the kind of negative smear tactics that have driven the country, I think, to distraction, and have broken down any willingness to have a decent political debate."
Gingrich's words are as much relevant today for our nation and the conservative movement as they were in 1994. In fact, when we reread the Contract today, it's clear that it serves as a renewed call for conservatives to lead the effort toward fostering "a decent political debate." It's the spirit of the Contract that should inspire us today, as Republicans, to address the issues before us with the same sense of unity and the "can do" attitude of 1994. Sadly though the distraction and breakdown that Gingrich highlighted in his remarks appear to be alive and well in 2014. As we prepare to approach the 20th anniversary of the "Contract with America," perhaps now is as good a time as any to address the breakdowns in the conservative movement that have left us without the inspiring leaders of the 1980s and 1990s.
In order for conservatism to once again inspire a generation of Americans, it will have to move beyond the negative and instead embrace positive solutions to today's pressing issues. One example of an organization working to achieve this is the YG Network, which recently released Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and A Thriving Middle Class; however, it has yet to gain the momentum necessary to ensure its popular adoption. Solutions, like those presented in Room to Grow, need to be effectively articulated to the American people, so that they are inspired not only to vote, but also to communicate their perspective to those holding opposing views. This transition from a state of "distraction" to a state of "action" will require transformation and coordination among the major actors in our movement: Intellectuals, the media, and politicians.
It will be up to the intellectuals to continue their research and dissemination of such to ensure ongoing innovation regarding policy responses to today's key issues. Think tanks like the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, American Enterprise Institute, and CATO will be critical as they continue to support those thinkers who are developing the new and innovative ideas needed to address the issues we face. These innovations will then need to be effectively communicated to the media, so that conservative ideas receive adequate coverage and analysis. The conservative media needs to be willing to give an appropriate amount of time to the consideration of conservative ideas presented by intellectuals. This doesn't mean having the academics be the sole representatives of their ideas, but rather ensuring that politicians deliver a consistent narrative to the American people that is both intelligent and thoughtful.
Once the breakdowns among the media, intellectuals, and politicians have been mended, conservative Americans will have access to the ideas and language they need to articulate the key messages of the conservative movement. Further, such will ensure that conservatism continues to contribute to and perhaps even lead an effort to restore intelligent political debate.
We cannot allow conservatism to devolve from a robust political philosophy to mere rhetoric. To halt this devolution, the media, intellectuals, and politicians must work together to renew the intelligent consideration of ideas that defined the period that gave birth to the "Contract with America." Conservative Americans are ready for a revival of conservative thought; however, such a renaissance will only take hold with the advent of a new generation of great communicators. These great communicators will only emerge once the ideas being contemplated by conservative thinkers in research institutions and universities come to the forefront to give birth to those great leaders. Yet, both the resurrection of conservative thought and the birth of inspiring leaders will require a change in tact among conservative media. The media will once again have to embrace engaging and thought-provoking policy conversations rather than playing host to a reactionary news cycle.
Gingrich's "Contract with America" did not have a termination date, but rather its spirit has been dormant for nearly twenty years. In those twenty years we've seen the positive impact that even a few years under the Contract had, one example being the success of welfare reform (often wrongly credited as a policy innovation of the Clintons). Now is the right time to remind our nation what conservatives can offer our society; at the very least, we should work to end the negative sound bites and instead take up Gingrich's challenge by presenting the ideas and vision that will once again inspire a nation.
If we re-launch efforts toward the realization of the promise embodied in the Contract before its anniversary in September, perhaps we will have enough time to equip politicians, intellectuals, and the media with the vision needed to ensure a victory for conservatives and American opportunity this November. It's time for Republicans to restore unity, forge a common message, focus on the development of intelligent policy proposals, and work toward "morning again in America" being a reality.