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The Conservative Responsibility in 1996: A Symposium: Free the Voters

In the 1996 election, conservatives have to remedy the mismatch between the public’s convictions and its opinions.

Americans overwhelmingly support conservative principles, such as limited government. In recent months, however, we have learned the hard way that these convictions do not always translate into conservative positions on specific issues. People oppose over-regulation of business, but they balk at proposals for curbing he Environmental Protection Agency. They see the free market as the engine of prosperity and job growth, but they also support a large increase in the minimum wage.

Why the inconsistency? While voters are intelligent, they do not spend most of their time pondering public issues. Quite sensibly, they focus on down-to-earth matters such as raising a family and earning a living. They rely on public figures to show the links between principle and policy, a long process that can take great patience. In the 104th Congress, House Republicans rushed many bills to the floor, and they sometimes forgot that they first had prepare public opinion by repeatedly explaining their reasons. People saw Republican actions before they heard Republican arguments.

Liberals filled this gap with disinformation. That’s why so many people think that GOP initiatives to reform the welfare state reflect a mean-spirited attack on the poor rather than a genuine effort to undo decades of liberal damage.

At this point, conservatives should identify a few key issues where public opinion stands far to the left of where it ought to be. Then we should make our case, over and over. In the in-elegant but helpful words of GOP National Chairman Haley Barbour: “Repeat it until you vomit.”

The environment is one issue where the public needs to hear conservative reasoning. Everybody wants clean air and water, and liberals have convinced people that we can achieve these goals only through bureaucracy. Liberals have a big advantage on this issue, mainly because people are unfamiliar with the other side. Conservatives thus should be constantly talking about free-market environmentalism, pounding at the theme that we can replace red tape with incentives and property rights. “Green” need not mean “liberal.”

Voters will do the right thing, but only if they hear the right arguments. Time to get to work.

John J. Pitney, Jr. expounds on politics on C-SPAN and at Claremont McKenna College.

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