April 21, 2005
The Conservative Movement at the Crossroads

by Newt Gingrich

For almost a half century, the conservative movement has been a dynamic, defining force in American politics and government. But now at the very moment that members of the movement are in control of the White House, the House and Senate, and many governorships and state legislatures, the conservative movement finds itself at a crossroads.

Conservative elected officials increasingly find themselves caught between two impulses: the revolutionary ideas that brought them into power and the need to explain and defend the institutions they inherited. And the longer these good men and women stay in office, the more likely they will be to defend the very bureaucracies and policies against which they once campaigned. The goal to transform government will be gradually overwhelmed by contentment with merely presiding over it.

So in 2005, in the wake of another in a string of electoral victories, the conservative movement faces a choice:

Is conservatism a grassroots movement dedicated to the transformation of government into an institution capable of meeting the challenges of the 21st century within the values of smaller government, lower taxes, stronger national security, greater individual freedom and strengthening American civilization as a unique “Creator endowed” system of human liberty?

Or, is conservatism a national and state capital-focused system of defending whatever compromise with the old order of liberal, big government is required in order to keep people we support in office?


The conservative movement must reaffirm its commitment to transforming government and insist that elected conservatives be held to a very high standard of bold, dramatic change.

It is a defeat for conservatives to hold the House, Senate, White House, and most of the governorships and then accept as our standard only modest marginal improvement of the liberal bureaucracies and liberal laws we campaigned to transform. The values and goals of the conservative movement require that we be on permanent offense with a continuous sense of dissatisfaction about the current government.

It is possible to create bold, dramatic transformation with four principles:

1. Transformative movements start first in the country and then gradually impose their values and their expectations on the capital.

Capitals are conspiracies of timidity and caution, bastions of the status quo and the old order that breed cynicism and complacency. Capitals confuse pork barrel projects with progress and meeting the daily demands of governance with meeting the historic demands of governing. Capitals applaud presiding in an orderly manner and are shocked by determined efforts to force transformation. This makes it almost impossible to create momentum for bold, decisive change from inside the capitol.

2. Transformation requires following Prime Minister Thatcher’s rule that “first you win the argument; then you win the vote.”

President Reagan proposed welfare reform at the National Governor’s Conference in 1970 and no one supported him. By 1996 the New York Times reported that 92% of the country favored welfare reform, including 88% of the people on welfare. It was virtually impossible for the Congress to avoid passing it or President Clinton to avoid signing it.

To win the argument we have to first pick the right arguments. I wrote Winning the Future as a handbook for 21st century conservatives, to help them win arguments. That is why I began the book with a set of 10 questions that Americans overwhelmingly agree with but the left generally opposes. The elite media and the interest group defenders of the status quo will consistently try to get us into arguments we can’t win or arguments that will not resonate with the American people. We must avoid these traps of distraction.

3. Transformation requires that you develop a pattern of clarity, simplicity, and repetition.

President Reagan understood that if you did not explain new ideas in clear understandable language you could not inspire and educate the American people. That is why he called for “bold clear colors and no pastels” in his description of the need to offers the American people real choices. Since defending the past is much easier than explaining the future, the burden is on the conservative movement to be much clearer and much more compelling than the left.

4. Transformation requires courage and commitment.

President Reagan spent 16 years advocating conservatism from his first national speech in 1964 to winning the Presidency in 1980. For most of that period he was ridiculed by the elite media and his views were distorted and derided by his opponents.

Those of us who believed there could be a House Republican majority were attacked from within our own party from 1978 to 1994. Many in the media scoffed at the idea of a Contract with America and dismissed the possibility that we could win (even the weekend before the 1994 election) while also deriding any thought that we would actually achieve our legislative goals. We developed the term ‘cheerful persistence” to remind ourselves of the only attitude that would let us continue to work for our goals despite the opposition from within the GOP and from our natural opponents in the Democratic Party, the liberal interest groups and the elite media.

A successful 21st century conservative movement is going to need the Reagan level of courage and the Contract level of cheerful persistence for it to succeed.


These principles must be the cornerstone of 21st century conservative activism, both for the life of the movement and for the good of the country. The challenges facing America in the next generation cannot possible be met by timid reforms of archaic government institutions and marginal modifications of obsolete policies. Transformation is imperative for America’s survival.

One way to develop this transformation is to develop a new 21st Century Contract with America which gives every American a yardstick against which to measure government. By creating a resonance with the American people, we can begin to develop the arguments that over time will reorient the political process toward transformation.

The following items would meet the values of the conservative movement, the interests of the American people and the requirements of keeping America successful in the 21st Century.

This is a rough draft, a general direction which will evolve over time. Each of these items is laid out in more detail in a white-paper available on newt.org called The Conservative Movement at the Crossroads which made its debut during my trip to New Hampshire earlier this week. The paper also expands on the topics covered above. The intellectual basis for these items can be found in Winning the Future. The section heading links will take you to the more detailed section in the newt.org white-paper.


1. With the danger of nuclear and biological weapon proliferation, the United States must control its borders. This requires far more resources than we are currently investing along with a strong, open green card program so guest workers willing to obey the law can enter legally. Simultaneously, tougher laws must be passed to enable us to deported illegal aliens in 72 hours. The combination of easy entry for the honest and law abiding with firm penalties for the dishonest and law-breaking will create a vastly more manageable border.

2. The United States must rise to the challenge of what could very well be a long war (maybe 50 to 70 years) with the Irreconcilable Wing of Islam. The intelligence community needs to be tripled in size if we are to have an effective, long-term policy of no sanctuaries for terrorists. Our national security apparatus has to be expanded to meet the challenge of providing worldwide leadership in a time of terrorism. Homeland Security has to meet the real test of intelligent, determined opponents. In this effort, National Security requirements should be set by national security needs not by budget strait jackets.

3. A virtual public health system that connects every doctor, nurse, pharmacist, veterinarian, hospital, long-term care facility and laboratory could save millions of lives in either a biological or nuclear attack. We must build this system.

In our Declaration of Independence, we declared “we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.” In America, our rights come from God and “we the people” then loan some of those rights to government. This is very different from the European model of power coming from the state and being granted to citizens. And without substantial transformation of the way history and civics are taught in the classrooms, this uniqueness will be lost.

We must reestablish patriotic immigration. Applicants for citizenship should be tested about American history and the tests should be in English. There is an enormous advantage to America remaining an English first society which respects the languages of other countries and encourages the learning of foreign languages but expects American civic culture and American politics and government to be conducted in English.

For the first time since 1840 the United States is about to face competitors with markets larger than ours. China and India are real economic powerhouses and they are going to be very serious competitors. If America is to remain the most vibrant, creative, advanced, and most prosperous country in the world, it will require very profound transformation in our laws, our regulations and our institutions.

1. Taxes should be reformed to favor saving and investment and to encourage entrepreneurship and job creation.

2. The regulatory state has to be completely overhauled.

3. We need to create a system of Health Courts and other arbitration systems as a first step to allow conflict resolution to occur quickly and simply without court actions.

4. We must take steps to maintain our superiority in Science and Technology including dramatically changing education to incentivize advanced math and science excellence and significantly increasing the amount we invest in basic scientific research.

5. Entrepreneurial public management must replace bureaucratic government administration.

6. We must learn to treat health not as a liability but as an economic opportunity.

There are persuasive economic arguments for why a balanced federal budget is preferable to deficit spending, but the most powerful argument is moral: without a balanced budget, politicians in Washington have no reason to say no to any special interest or pork-barrel project with which they are presented.

The key to balancing the budget for both the federal government and the state governments is to transform the health system. Health is 26% of all federal spending and it is going to go up dramatically as the Baby Boomers age. It is the largest (now 15%) and the most complex part of American society (about 30 times more complex than national security).

Transforming health will require the largest most complex intellectual effort in American government in our history. It has to be approached as something far different than politics as usual. This is such an important part of our future that we founded the Center for Health Transformation just to begin working on these solutions.

Every day we fail to give younger Americans the opportunity to choose a personal social security savings account we cheat them of a lifetime of compound interest on their own money. The Ryan-Sununu bill would give every younger American the right to have a personal Social Security Savings account, allowing them the opportunity to accumulate three to four times as large a retirement income as they will get by staying trapped inside a transfer payment model.

Click here to view the complete white paper The Conservative Movement at the Crossroads

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