| January 4, 2013

A Valley Forge Moment for Conservatives

[Below is the text of Sen. Coburn’s speech to The American Spectator’s 45th Anniversary Dinner on November 14, 2012.]

Thank you for that kind introduction. It’s an honor to be with you tonight as we celebrate The American Spectator’s 45th anniversary. I especially want to thank Bob Tyrrell, who has been with the Spectator since the very beginning. Bob, I want to thank you and honor you for your commitment to telling the truth, and for reminding us to laugh, which is especially important in times like this.

Like most of you, I wish we had a different outcome last week. But it’s important to talk honestly about what happened, and what we can do to get our nation back on track.

This election, I believe, is a seminal moment in history. We may have passed a tipping point. I woke up on Tuesday believing we were a center-right country and went to bed realizing we may simply be a divided country.

Fifty percent of American households now receive at least $2,500 in benefits from the federal government. And President Obama wants to expand that number. At the same time, median income is going down while the jobless rate is still far too high.

The hard reality is this: When the majority of Americans reward the politics of bailouts and benefits ahead of the promise of hard work, freedom, and opportunity, we have to question not just the viability of our message but the viability of our country.

Our history, however, is a series of defining moments. And since our beginning, we have been a nation that has cheated history.

One of those moments happened back in the winter of 1777 at a place called Valley Forge. The Continental Army under General Washington was on the ropes after a string of defeats. They were hungry, weary, and ill-equipped. The conditions were brutal: 2,500 men—about 10 percent of his army—perished that winter. Washington didn’t know how many would survive, and of those that did, he didn’t know if enough would re-enlist to carry on the struggle. But Washington refused to give up. He chose to lead. He decided to take action. He wasn’t content to just survive and keep warm. Braving the wind and cold, he drilled his men daily. He honed his tactics and forged an army in a crucible of adversity.

For us, this is a Valley Forge moment. This is a time for leadership that calls on us to re-enlist in the struggle to preserve freedom, and a leadership that drills us in the principles that made us great.

To get back on track, I would suggest we focus on a few simple points: truth, oversight, action, and accountability.

One of the lessons from last Tuesday is that we’ve failed to tell the American people—particularly young voters—the truth about where we are.

The truth is, on our present course, the average young person in this country is going to inherit a lower standard of living than their parents. That is unacceptable.

America is already bankrupt. We may not believe it. We may not yet feel its full effects. But we are effectively bankrupt. Our debt, which is 103 percent of our GDP, now exceeds the size of our entire economy.

The crisis is imminent. Today, we’re on the cusp of another downgrade. If interest rates go up one point, we add at least another $160 billion to our deficit every year. If rates return to historic averages, we’ll add about $640 billion to our deficit every year—which is more than our defense budget.

In two years, the Social Security disability trust fund goes bankrupt. In five years, Medicare Part A—the hospital insurance trust fund—may be bankrupt. And in ten years the costs of entitlements and interest on the debt alone will consume all available tax revenues. That means our entire military and discretionary budget will be financed entirely on borrowed—or printed—money.

The truth is we’ll never get to the point of running DOD on money borrowed from China and elsewhere. Eventually, the rest of the world will decide we can’t pay what we owe and they’ll stop lending us money. As I describe in my book, The Debt Bomb, that’s when the party is over.

That isn’t just my opinion. In 2011 Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress that these unsustainable spending levels can’t continue “because creditors would never be willing to lend to a government whose debt, relative to national income, is rising without limit.”

Here’s why this is important in the context of what happened last Tuesday.

We’ve heard a lot of talk about the left’s so-called demographic advantage and the president’s electoral firewall, and whether that firewall will hold in future elections. Let me tell you some good news. Those of us who believe in the Constitution and limited government have a much more potent firewall working in our favor: it is a mathematical and budgetary firewall. It is a firewall that tells us—in very stark terms—that we can’t afford the status quo. We don’t have the money. Sooner rather than later, the other side will have to accept reforms that are a lot closer to our principles than theirs.

The demographic advantage—at least among younger voters—is a bubble of inflated expectations that can’t be met. Where the left sees a demographic advantage, I see a generation of Americans about to be drowned in debt. When that happens, our solutions will be like an ark in the storm.

Hopefully we won’t have to live through such a crisis. If we tell the truth effectively, we may not have to.

So, our first task is to tell the truth. The second is oversight, which has to happen before you set priorities and get spending under control.

Oversight isn’t very popular in Washington because politicians on both sides prefer to create new programs instead of looking at whether the programs we’ve already created are working. But, I believe, oversight resonates with families because that’s how they live their lives every day. In the real world, people look at their budgets and make choices. In Washington, we make excuses, and defer choices to future generations.

Oversight is about methodically and relentlessly building the case for limited government. And it’s about recognizing that big changes often happen in small steps. That’s why I release reports on all areas of the government. In my latest annual Wastebook report, we found federal funding from everything from robotic squirrels to climate change musicals to caviar promotion.

Here are a few more. You can’t make this stuff up. We found:

  • $27 million for Moroccan pottery classes
  • $505,000 for the promotion of specialty shampoo and other beauty products for cats and dogs
  • $1.3 million in corporate welfare for the world’s largest snack food producer, PepsiCo Inc.
  • $350,000 for a government-funded study on how golfers might benefit from using their imagination to envision the hole to be bigger than it actually is. Really? Maybe we should have studied how to help politicians imagine a smaller hole in the budget.

The list goes on and on. And I’m adding to the list tomorrow, when I’ll release a report that details more than $60 billion in non-defense spending at the Pentagon.

The point of these reports is to help the public have an understanding of government that reflects reality. And the reality is we could reduce the size of government by one-third today and no one outside of Washington would be able to tell the difference.

Oversight, again, isn’t just the responsibility of those of us in elected office. It’s the media’s responsibility as well. Many of you in this room are doing that, and I salute you.

So, task number two is oversight. The last two—action and accountability—go together.

Perhaps the greatest problem I’ve seen in the Republican Party since being elected in the Class of 1994 is the gap between our words and actions. We have two forms of conservatism in Washington. One is cheap or complacent conservatism; the other is costly or courageous conservatism. One is common, the other is rare.

Cheap or complacent conservatism is the conservatism of rhetoric, pledges, and pandering. Costly and courageous conservatism is a conservatism of action, solutions, and sacrifice. Cheap conservatism looks for scapegoats to compensate for its failure to communicate and implement a limited government agenda. Costly conservatism is brimming with optimism and compelling solutions. Cheap conservatism treats particular areas of the budget as sacred based on political expediency. Costly conservatism treats every tax dollar as sacred based on the principles of liberty and self-government.

Whether we have cheap or costly conservatism really is up to all of us in this room, particularly those of you who are leaders in the media and interest groups. My challenge to you is don’t elevate the politicians who tell you what you want to hear; elevate the leaders who are willing to take us where we need to go.

Let me make a final point, about accountability. Many want to blame our setbacks in the Senate, in particular, on the Tea Party. I agree we need to do a much, much better job of candidate recruitment. But the problem in Republican politics isn’t the challengers, it’s the incumbents: it’s the career politicians who say they are for limited government and lower taxes but make decisions that give us bigger government and higher taxes.

Voters will forgive us for trying and failing, but they won’t—nor should they—forgive us for not trying. If we align our actions with our words and primary ourselves with term limits, we’ll create the kind of leadership America needs.

As we think about the basics, we do have recent models of success to draw from. In the earmark battle, for instance, no one thought we would succeed. Our initial raid against the Bridge to Nowhere failed 82 to 15. But we never gave up. We were specific, methodical, and relentless. We exposed excess, took action, and voters held politicians accountable. Eventually, we ended a practice that was a terrible distraction and disgrace to our party.

The task before us is simple. Telling the truth, conducting oversight, taking action, and holding politicians accountable will lead us out of our Valley Forge and on to victory.

President Obama closed his campaign with the slogan “Forward.” They later modified it with an exclamation mark so it read “Forward!” I wish we could change it to read “Fast-Forward.” But I want to leave you with a different word: “Forever.”

Our vision is not based on a sentimental optimism that is blissfully ignorant of history, and math. Our vision is a serious optimism based on enduring principles that have stood the test of time because they stand outside of time: principles that come from nature and nature’s God: principles of self-reliance, sacrificial leadership, and most of all, the dignity of each person regardless of race or creed.

If we want to communicate our values clearly, we need to go back to those enduring “forever” principles that built our country, and avoid the short-term politics of pandering. Doing so will address each challenge we face.

And, like our founders, we can look back at history and draw from the wisdom of those who lived through perilous times in the past. After Rome was sacked, the great writer and thinker Augustine looked at a world that seemed to be coming to an end and wrote a book called The City of God in which he contrasted that eternal city with the City of Man.

It is in the eternal city we learn there is no black or white, Asian or Hispanic, male or female, and born or unborn. Though we are all imperfect and flawed, we are all children of God. And, once we choose to enter, we are all immigrants welcomed by grace.

You see, our vision welcomes all people because it is based on a view of freedom, liberty, and dignity that comes from a Creator, not from the state, the king, or a board of unelected bureaucrats in Washington.

We offer a vision of shared prosperity through what Arthur Brooks calls earned success. Their vision offers shared misery through the redistribution of wealth and class envy. We uphold the dignity of all people. Their ideas diminish the dignity of all people through debt and dependency. Their vision is unsustainable, ours is sustainable. Where they offer a rendezvous with debt, we still offer a rendezvous with destiny.

From low points like Valley Forge to the debacle of Watergate, the answer is never to abandon our values. Instead, we should follow Ronald Reagan’s advice from 1975: “Our people look for a cause to believe in. Is it a third party we need, or is it a new and revitalized second party, raising a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all of the issues troubling the people?”

As we continue to reflect, and debate, I would encourage you to face the future not with fear but with faith and optimism. America is a nation—and an idea—that has cheated history many times in the past and can do so again.

Thank you. And may God bless you and our great country.

A former OCPA trustee, Dr. Tom Coburn is the junior U.S. Senator from Oklahoma.

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