Eight hundred miles and a world away from the life-and-death budget struggle in Washington, conservative activists gathered in St. Louis last weekend to meet a new generation of conservative leaders. They left the regional Conservative Political Action Conference with renewed hope, both for the party and the movement as a whole.
Network news crews weren’t in attendance as a young legislator named Carlin Yoder spoke boldly about his successful effort to make Indiana the 23rd in the nation to enact what he rightly calls workplace freedom — the right to not send a portion of your paycheck to finance the activities and lifestyles of union bosses.
At 39, Senator Yoder typifies a new breed of grassroots conservative whose emergence has virtually escaped the radar of the mainstream Washington-based media. He was, however, recognized at CPAC as an honoree of the American Conservative Union/GOPAC “10 Under 40” program — an especially promising group of nationwide elected leaders under the age of 40 who represent conservatism’s best hope in the years ahead.
Senator Yoder challenged his national counterparts to “come up with a plan, a blueprint.”
In Indiana, he stressed, conservative successes came about as the result of “a long-term vision” — a guidepost toward true North that could withstand even the most vocal opposition.
“We need to come up with our own ideas to mold the United States into the conservative nation of our founding,” Senator Yoder told the conservative activists.
In Indiana as in other Republican-led states, that bold conservative blueprint includes education reform. Before Senator Yoder came to office, Hoosiers were spending half their budget on education — and the investment was not being borne out by results.
Because of the new conservative vision, teachers and schools in Indiana are now held accountable to parents and taxpayers; quality teachers are being rewarded with merit pay, while underperforming ones are shown the door. School voucher programs have been beefed up, and parents now have an objective means to evaluate their children’s schools and teachers in an atmosphere of transparency.
Indiana isn’t the only place where a promising new conservative agenda for tomorrow is being driven by an exciting new group of leaders — and being overshadowed by the epic showdown in Washington.
In Wisconsin, Republicans managed to erase a yawning $3.6 billion deficit in just one cycle thanks to long-overdue reforms of the state’s public employee pensions and benefits. Not only did the GOP resist calls for tax hikes, they actually lowered taxes by $1 billion, creating thousands of new Wisconsin jobs in the process.
As Wisconsin Assembly Speaker pro tem Tyler August — yet another of the “10 Under 40” honorees — told the CPAC conference, it’s about thinking “of the next generation, not just the next election.”
Assemblyman August, too, is emblematic of the new generation of conservative Republicans that is racking up victories across the heartland that the national GOP could learn from.
In Colorado, Clarice Navarro-Ratzlaff has fought to bring the Colorado legislature into the internet age, so small business owners can deliver impact statements on pending legislation online, and not just in person at the State Legislature in Denver.
“Owners of a small business on Main Street can’t afford to travel to Denver, then wait for hours to deliver their three minutes of comments,” she says. “If the legislature heard first-hand the impact they have, they’d think twice about raising taxes or imposing new regulatory schemes.”
In Michigan, state Representative Tom Leonard and his colleagues have worked with Governor Rick Snyder to erase $20 billion in long-term debt and, in the process, brought unemployment down by 4 percent.
Representative Leonard speaks eloquently about the need for accountability for public workers, and of the need to give parents greater choices in their children’s educations. Over the strenuous objections of the Left, Michigan’s legislature reformed tenure and lifted a cap on charter schools.
That’s in addition to adopting Right-to-Work legislation — in Michigan, of all places.
Anybody who doubts the power of conservative ideas — or who is interested in mapping our movement’s trajectory over the coming decades — should have been at CPAC last weekend.
Better yet, get out of Washington and visit the Republican-led state capitals.
Frank Donatelli is chairman of GOPAC, an organization dedicated to educating and electing the next generation of Republican leaders. He was also White House political director for President Ronald Reagan.