My political epiphany occurred there, too. (No, not at the hot tub party. In California.)
First, some background. In 1994, I was on the staff of the Huffington for U.S. Senate campaign. Michael Huffington was an oil millionaire and Congressman who was married at the time to Arianna. Google him, it’s quite the read.
We came awfully close to beating Senator Dianne Feinstein. But something else happened that November. The Republicans won the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.
Every young swinging tusk descended on Washington, networking, looking for jobs, and reading Speaker Newt Gingrich’s “syllabus” (the Federalist Papers, Democracy in America, Future Shock).
Ultimately, I stayed in California, where I thought about my own political views. Conservatism was ascendant. I was a conservative. So how did my core beliefs translate to practical politics? What made them distinct yet relevant to the times?
My conservative epiphany occurred one day in 1995 while driving on the 405. It can be summed up by three words:
Freedom, family, and fairness.
Republicans, I thought, must be advocates for all three values.
Freedom is the first, the foundation for the others. Indeed, it is why we were founded. Freedom enables us to create wealth and lead the world. It gives us the strength to protect the weak. It is what makes the United States exceptional. As newspaper publisher Eugene C. Pulliam said, “America is great only because America is free.”
Freedom, however, can encroach on other rights. When it does, it must be tempered. We are not free to harm another person. We are not free to exploit minors or sell drugs or drive drunk. That is not liberty, that is libertinism.
So the family must be protected. Each family is like a single cell. Millions of them together make up our body politic. When they are healthy and intact, so is the country. When they decay or divide or grow dependent, the country sickens.
Finally, fairness. Americans do not want government to pick winners and losers. But they do expect it to keep the playing field level. Meritocracy must guide democracy. In the free market, capitalism does not mean monopoly. In government, “compassion” does not mean cronyism.
“There are no necessary evils in government,” said President Andrew Jackson. “Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing.”
If that’s the case, then Washington, with its Cornhusker Kickbacks and Louisiana Purchases, its waivers for friends and fines for the little guy, is the most cursed place on Earth.
Fairness is a conservative value. President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 State of the Union Address used the term more than any since:
“Our standard here will be fairness, ensuring that the taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars go only to the truly needy…”
“We’ll continue to study ways to simplify the tax code and make it more fair for all Americans…”
“Our commitment to fairness means that we must assure legal and economic equity for women…”
“Also in the area of fairness and equity, we will ask for extension of the Civil Rights Commission, which is due to expire this year…”
“The path I’ve outlined is fair, balanced, and realistic.”
Since then, however, the word has been captured by Democrats, from President Bill Clinton (“a fair shot at the American dream”) to Sen. John Kerry (“fundamental fairness”) to President Barack Obama (“We can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot and everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules”).
In reaction, many Republicans have given up on fairness. John McCain and Mitt Romney did not use the word once in their nomination speeches. Conservatives have turned it into a punchline, as Democrats once did with “patriotism.” Former Club for Growth president Stephen Moore derided “this fairness fetish.” Charles Krauthammer jeered Obama as “the leveler.”
“Obama’s level playing field is not about opportunity,” said Rush Limbaugh. “He’s talking about outcomes. And he’s going to administer the outcomes.”
We do not have to accept the Democrats’ definition of fairness. But it is vital that we reclaim it.
Some have realized this. Dr. Benjamin Carson, in a celebrated speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, talked about fairness in the form of a proportional tax system. Sen. Ted Cruz recently argued that amnesty would be “profoundly unfair to the millions of legal immigrants who waited years, if not decades, to come to America legally.” And in December, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a right-to-work bill called the “Workplace Equity and Fairness Act.”
Words are important. They crystallize concepts that win arguments. I will be watching the State of the Union Address tonight and the Republican response to see if freedom, family, and fairness are addressed and advanced — or undermined.
To be continued.
John K. Herr is a Washington D.C.-based speechwriter and standup comedian (stage name “Herricane”). He has written for three governors and four Cabinet secretaries, and wrote jokes for President George W. Bush. He can be reached by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or follow him on Twitter (@jherricane).