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Remarks By Senator Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader, At The Conservative Political Action Conference

Location: Washington, DC

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SEN. MCCONNELL: Thank you very much, Matt.

And good morning, everyone. It's good to be here. I've been to a number of these CPAC conferences over the year. And this room is packed. And I can't tell you how excited I am to see all of you this morning.

You've had a great lineup of speakers. I just saw my friend John Boehner on the way out. He's a great teammate here in Congress. John Cornyn, doing a wonderful job for the people of Texas, is head of our National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is our campaign arm.

Jim DeMint, one of the strongest advocates of conservative principles we have. And I know that you're all as impressed as I am with the leadership of Dr. Tom Coburn. (Applause.)

And I want to thank David Keene for inviting me. David's been one of the great thinkers and foot soldiers in the battle of ideas over the years. He's been organizing this conference longer than most of you have been alive. (Laughter.) And they get better every year. In fact, some people call CPAC the conservative spring break. (Laughter.) And David's of course the driving force.

He can be proud of that, and I know he's proud to be the father of a brave young soldier serving our nation on a second tour of duty in Iraq. (Applause.)

You know, the organizers of CPAC probably thought they had done a pretty good job when about 200 people showed up to hear a speech by a Republican governor from California named Ronald Reagan. At the time, few could have guessed that the man they'd come to hear would be -- would do so very much to revive our nation's fortunes and to help secure the freedom of so many millions overseas. And few could have known how important CPAC would prove to be during that period and still is today.

CPAC has been the host to presidents, lawmakers and some of the nation's top opinion leaders. And most importantly, it's been a training ground for young minds. Of the record 8,500 registrants this year -- 8,500 registrants this year -- more than half are college students, including, I'm told, a good number from the Commonwealth of Kentucky. (Applause.)

Compare that to the left's annual attempt to imitate CPAC, the so-called Take Back America conference, which last year drew about a third as many people as CPAC. What this proves, of course, is that conservatives are more fun and interesting than liberals. (Laughter, applause.)

I mean, let's be honest. Who wants to hang out with guys like Paul Krugman and Robert Reich -- (laughter, applause) -- when you can be with Rush Limbaugh? (Cheers, applause.)

Some in the media like to think that the conservative movement's on the way out, that it's devoid of energy and enthusiasm. Well, they should come to CPAC. I know it might be a disappointment to many of them, but they'd see what I see. The conservative movement is alive and well. (Cheers, applause.)

But even if we put on a better conference than our friends on the other side, they've got quite a bit more influence, regretfully, at the moment. And they have big plans for the country. And since all of you are on the front lines, the volunteers, the organizers, the future opinion leaders who are carrying and will carry our message to a new generation, this morning I thought I would discuss some of the things that I think we all need to do if we're going to stage a comeback. And we must stage a comeback. (Applause.)

Now, the first step, in my view, is to remind ourselves where we are. The political landscape is a lot different today than it was when Kentuckians first sent me to Washington. Imagine this: Back then, the Republican governor of New Jersey -- (laughter) -- had just been reelected with 70 percent of the vote. Republicans had just taken over both legislative chambers in Connecticut and the Republican candidate for president had just won 49 of 50 states.

For Republicans in 1984, the political compass didn't point in one direction. Our principles, as we know, are universal, but back then it really showed. Not so today. As we look over the political landscape in 2009, we see that every single one of New England's 21 House members is a Democrat, that there isn't a single Republican senator representing tens of millions of Americans on the West Coast, and that you can walk from Canada to Mexico and from Montana to Maine without ever leaving a state in this country that has a Democratic governor.

We're fast becoming a regional party instead of a national one, and there's a name for a regional party. It's called a minority party. Being in the minority party might be okay if you're in a college debating society. On today's campuses it might even be fun in a countercultural sort of way. (Laughter.) But I assure you, it's not good for America when we're in the minority and none of us should be content to stay there. (Applause.)

I should note that looking at the list of events this weekend, it appears that no one at CPAC seems the least bit content about our current political standing, or at least with relying on old methods for building the party and communicating our message to the broader public. One of the reasons so many of you are here is that somebody else told you through Facebook or Twitter that they were going. And before you leave, many will have heard about the best and latest strategies for raising funds, recruiting candidates or building coalitions for conservative causes among minority groups.

All of these things must be at the heart of our renewal. But the instrument is only as good as the strategy. And the strategy has to improve.

First and foremost, we need to search out those who have left our party, wherever they are, and give them a good reason to take a second look. These people were Republican for a reason. We need to remind them why.

As we do this, we shouldn't fall for the false temptation of diluting our principles. You don't expand your appeal by turning away from those who are the most loyal. Instead, you work harder to appeal to everybody else. But this much is clear: our message isn't getting out to as many people as it should, and that needs to change. (Applause.)

Second -- second, we need to be concerned that the very wealthy and the very poor, the most and least educated, and a majority of minority voters have stopped paying attention to us. We've made the case to Hispanic and African-American voters that our policies are best suited to the aspirations of these communities. Yet in the last election, Hispanic voters turned out in far greater numbers for the Democratic candidate, and, sadly, the party that was founded on the principle of racial equality attracted just 4 percent of the African- American vote in the last presidential election.

These are not reasons to abandon the effort. They're reasons to work twice as hard. And in this regard, it's encouraging to see that CPAC is hosting a panel this year on the building of Hispanic coalitions. This is necessary work, and it shouldn't be an uphill battle. You know, Ronald Reagan once said Hispanic voters are Republicans, they just don't know it yet. (Laughter.) It's up to all of you to show Hispanics in the search for the American dream that the Republican party is their home.

As we seek to reach -- (applause) -- as we seek to reach old friends and find new ones, we need to expand our principles. As conservatives, we believe a big and encroaching government is a threat to liberty; that greater liberty and freedom lead to greater prosperity, stronger families and communities; that workers should be allowed to keep more of what they earn; that judges should follow the -- what the Constitution says, not what they want it to; and that human life is sacred. (Applause.)

I was disappointed that one of the first things the new administration did was to reverse the Mexico City Policy.

Americans do not want their tax dollars to be used promoting abortion, either here or abroad. (Applause.)

Conservatives also believe that the government has no more solemn duty than to protect the people who established it. And on this last point, let's be very clear about something else.

When it comes to Guantanamo, the new administration needs to show it's more concerned with safety than with symbolism. (Applause.) Many of those, many of those still detained are serious threats to the safety of our citizens, serious threats. In fact, several of these terrorists still proudly proclaim their desire to kill more Americans.

Now, the new attorney general visited Guantanamo earlier this week and returned with a glowing report. He said it was well-run, that he was impressed with the people in charge, and that every single person there has to be moved out of Guantanamo, and it has to be shut down in less than a year. The Obama administration needs to answer a very simple question. Where exactly do you expect to send these guys? (Applause.)

Well, they don't have an answer to that question. They don't have an answer to that question. But I do. (Cross talk.) Those are all very good suggestions. (Laughter, applause.) But let me tell you where they ought to be. They ought to be right there in the jail in Guantanamo. (Cheers, applause.) You guys get it. (Laughter.) You don't take much prompting at all. (Laughter.) I mean, obviously that's where they belong.

Over the past few months, we've seen a big-government mentality creep back into fashion on Capitol Hill. It seems that failed big- government solutions of the Carter era are back, making a comeback. And I assure you, Republicans are going to do everything we can, to make sure that the failed policies of the past stay where they belong. (Applause.) And let me tell you where they belong. They belong right next to the bell-bottoms and the leisure suits. (Laughter, applause.)

Now, no one doubts that government should have a role. Indeed some challenges are so great or so urgent that they do require government to act. Government can also play an important role in helping Americans meet 21st-century challenges through things like education reform, making health care more efficient and more affordable, for everyone, and increasing energy exploration.

But in the face of new challenges, Democrats seem to be reverting to the old play book of bloated government, out-of-control spending, and higher and higher taxes to pay for all of it. During the last administration, they never passed up an opportunity to wring their hands about the spending that both parties approved to recover from a horrific terrorist attack, to fight two wars and to rebuild after the single worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

But now the shoe is on the other foot, and what have we seen? Well, in just one month -- just one month -- the Democrats have spent more than President Bush spent in seven years on the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan and Hurricane Katrina combined. In one month.

If the overall spending has been jaw-dropping, then the individual proposals have been even more troubling. Everyone is familiar with the trillion-dollar stimulus bill. A bill that was supposed to be timely, temporary and targeted turned out to be none of the above. Much of the spending won't go into effect for literally years. Much of it is directed at wasteful projects, like government golf carts. And much of the new government spending will be virtually impossible to cut off once the economy recovers.

Next week we'll be voting on another spending bill, the annual appropriation bill that covers spending through October. We've had a couple of days to look at what the Democrats are proposing, and it looks a lot like the stimulus bill. And maybe the stimulus bill wasn't just enough because, as it turns out, the appropriation bill double-dips by including money for 122 programs that were in the stimulus bill.

We hear a lot from Democrats these days about the needs for Americans to sacrifice for the good of the whole. Yet at a time when Americans are tightening their belts, Democrats in Washington are letting theirs out a notch or two, and they're not pushing back from the table yet. When it comes to fiscal responsibility, Democrats are clearly telling Americans to do as they say, not as they do.

What does all this mean? Well, one way to look at it is that for more than two centuries, Americans have embraced a simple principle that's at the heart of who we are as Americans. The principle said that we work hard so our kids can have a better -- a better life and more opportunities than we had.

Well, it seems that this Congress wants to reverse the order. It seems they want our children to work hard to pay a debt that we ran up because we don't have the will to make the hard choices now.

The government-first approach isn't limited to spending tax dollars. It also extends to the Democrats' approach to free speech. On this issue, the Constitution could not be clearer. The Founders felt so strongly about government limitations on speech that they prohibited it in the very first amendment. Yet today some on the other side want to shut you up by enforcing limits on what's said on the airwaves. They call it the Fairness Doctrine. (Booing.) What they should call it is the We Can't Compete with Conservative Talk Radio Act of 2009! (Cheers, applause.)

And let me tell you this. Let me tell you this. It will be an honor for Republicans to make sure that this unconstitutional proposal never becomes law! (Cheers, applause.)

Now the -- the government-first approach is evident in Washington's effort to stifle the freedom of workers in this country to decide, without coercion or intimidation, whether they want to belong to a union. Workers should be free to vote the way they want without a union boss or a company manager looking over their shoulder. (Applause.) And Republicans will make sure that this union power grab never becomes law. (Applause.)

Look, pushing back these efforts to basically Europeanize America will not be easy. It will require a committed effort on the part of everyone in this room. It will require carrying our message to those who have left our party and to many more who are receptive to our message.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress will be vigilant about promoting their ideals, the ideals that made our nation great.

And we'll be relentless in proposing new solutions for the 21st century challenges we face.

Some people look at Republican losses in places like the Northeast and the West Coast and say it's over in these places, that we need to focus on our strongholds. But that's not the kind of -- but that's not the kind of party I signed up for. (Audio break) -- those places without diluting our message, because I've seen it done.

I described earlier what most of the country looked like in 1984. I didn't say what Kentucky looked like in 1984. Well, it didn't look like it does today. And there's an important lesson here. The year I was elected to the Senate, both senators in my state were Democrat the year I ran. Of the seven congressional districts in our state, Republicans held only two.

Six years later I was reelected and set in plan a -- a plan in place. I knew that Kentuckians, like most Americans, were commonsense conservatives. Many of them had been registered Democrats, still are. But on almost all the issues, they actually agreed with us. My strategy was simple. First, find good candidates. If they could win on their own, let them. If they couldn't, surround them with people who could push them over the line. It was hard work, but it paid off.

Just nine years after that, both U.S. senators in Kentucky were Republican. Five of our six congressional seats were Republican. And in the final coup, the state senate flipped to a Republican control when a long-time Democrat agreed to switch parties in my living room. (Applause.)

So don't tell me we can't do this, working together. We can. (Laughter.) Over the years, Kentuckians got comfortable -- not a bad slogan. It works better for us. (Laughter, applause.) What happened in my state is over the years Kentuckians got comfortable with Republicans. And they're comfortable sending other Republicans to the state capital, to the nation's capital.

Believe me, it's amazing how much people will start to trust somebody with an R after their name once he's been around for a little while, shown them what a good conservative government can be like and the difference it can make in their lives. It happened in the commonwealth of Kentucky, and it happened last fall when New Orleans sent a Republican to Congress for the first time since 1891 -- (applause) -- a Republican who also happens to be the first Vietnamese-American member of Congress in our history. (Applause.)

And with your hard work and creativity, it will happen in every other state and city in America in the months and years ahead.

So my message to you is this. Be proud of your principles. Be daring in recruiting new candidates. And never, ever tire of fighting for the ideas that will ensure the safety and prosperity of this great country.

You are the soldiers. You will do all these things. You will get others to do them too. And before you know it, we'll have made our comeback.

Thank you very much. God bless you all. Good luck. (Applause.)

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