Discover more from Heath's Substack
In Defense of the Can-Do America
The transcript of my opening remarks at the 2023 Principles First Summit.
Opening remarks delivered at the 2023 Principles First Summit in the Grand Ballroom of the Conrad Hotel in Washington, DC on Saturday, March 4. Thanks to all the volunteers whose effort and passion help make the Summit such a special success each year.
“Thank you, Dave – and I echo his thanks to all of the groups he mentioned. It is an incredible feeling to stand here and see all of you – who have come from near and far at personal expense and sacrifice to be in this room today. In that way – even if this is your first Principles First event, we are all cut from the same cloth – our speakers, our leaders, and you. You are here, not to fawn over someone, but because you still believe in our country and you hold a set of principles higher than your loyalties to any politician or party. That’s what makes this Summit different. And, while we are still in our early days and may always be the underdogs, this room today makes the trendline clear: CPAC is shrinking and Principles First is growing.
I want to talk this morning about the theme of this year’s Summit: Preserving American Institutions. And I wish it were different, but the plain truth is that our institutions today are under an all-out attack. Our elections, our Constitution, our intelligence agencies, our law enforcement, our businesses, media, schools – you name it – all have become the targets of talentless and small-minded politicians. Instead of leading and proposing solutions to attack actual problems like poverty or inflation or the high cost of healthcare or the fact that we are still in the middle of the global pack in terms of educational outcomes -- populist demagogues attack our institutions instead and, rather than improve them in some way, they tell us we should just tear them all down or that the institutions themselves are our enemy.
They tell us that we’re all victims of our institutions -- that they are rigged against us, and that some other group of Americans – the rich, the “woke”, or the “elite” – are to blame. They tell us that if we just elect them – they will save us and punish those other Americans who don’t think like us, or talk like us or look like us. This – as far as I can tell – is their only principle: protect those who agree with us and punish those who don’t. That is not a recipe for American greatness.
These same politicians like to say “America First” – but if you listen carefully, they don’t seem to like much about America. They say our businesses are too liberal, our schools are too woke, our military and intelligence agencies are too corrupt, our courts can’t be trusted, our elections are rigged, our Constitution needs to be terminated, they tell us we just need to get a “national divorce” – and once they catch their breath from all that, they’ll tell you America isn’t strong enough to survive even another day if you don’t elect their guy so government can step in and fix everything.
And when asked what we should be doing instead – they don’t look to America anymore…. they look to Hungary! Where Viktor Orban’s government shutters radio stations critical of the state and attacks minorities.
It’s really no surprise that these folks keep losing elections in this country – America – founded on a healthy skepticism of government power and a fundamental faith in individual freedom and personal responsibility. They so dislike how we choose to exercise our freedoms, that they now aim to limit them. That isn’t America First – because it isn’t America at all.
It’s such a small view of our country and of what we are capable of achieving. The us-vs-them mentality that pits us against our neighbor is holding us back in a very real way and threatening our global leadership and competitiveness. It’s like we’re in a boat, with only one side rowing at a time – constantly going in a circle. We have to reject it – and it starts, I think, by focusing on our institutions – because they are what channel our disagreements into constructive outcomes.
Now, our institutions aren’t perfect – and I doubt anyone here this weekend would claim that they are. But our institutions are a big part of what make America America – they are what separate constitutional democracy from populism; rule of law from rule of men; capitalism from cronyism; and freedom from tyranny. After 250 years, it is easy to forget just how thin the lines are between these things and just how costly it can be to cross them.
So, for all the faults of our Framers, I still believe they actually did a great thing when they penned the Declaration of Independence and wrote the Constitution all those years ago – and we damn sure shouldn’t start throwing it all away over one lost election.
You are here today because you realize that that’s what defines us as Americans – not our ethnicity, or our religion, or our culture, or who we elect. Leaders come and go, but our institutions and our principles define who we are as a country and who we want to be. Institutions and concepts like the free press, the Constitution, the separation of powers, the bicameral Congress, the separation of church and state, free and fair elections, federalism, the Bill of Rights, and the peaceful transfer of power. Principles like every person has dignity and worth; that we should all be treated equally in the eyes of the law; that elections aren’t rigged just because you lose; and that character and truth matter. These are the things that define us – not the outcome of some trumped up culture war. If the culture war really determined the essence of America, we would have 50 different Americas and they would constantly change from one generation to the next. The America I know is a lot bigger and grander than that.
I believe in the America that I read about in my history book – an exceptional America, that was always at its best when it was united in common purpose instead of divided inward against itself. The America that won an underdog revolution, helped rid Europe of Nazi tyranny, ended segregation, beat Russia to the moon, and defeated Soviet communism. It is a “Can Do” America – one that finds a way rather than an excuse. It’s an America big enough and confident enough to say: we can welcome and leverage the skills and talents of legal immigrants; we can open up our economy and train our workforce to compete; we can let gay teachers mention their spouses in class; we can secure our border and treat everyone with respect while we do it; and, yes Tucker, we can help Ukraine defend freedom in Europe; and, yes Marjorie, believe it or not, we can keep surviving as one unified country. In America, the possibility of what we can do will always be much greater and promising than whatever it is we can’t do.
And it’s because of those possibilities that I think you and I are indeed on a rendezvous with destiny, as Reagan once said – one that connects us not just to each other but to the generations of Americans who came before and who will follow after us. But we face a choice – not between Republicans and Democrats, but between our rich liberal tradition of freedom and a fundamental rejection of it.
So as we listen to these panels the next few days – I urge you to think critically about that choice and what it will take from each of us in the coming years to save these principles that we love and the imperfect institutions that realize them. Because that is the task in front of us. It won’t be easy, it won’t be without struggle, or sweat or sacrifice – but it will be worth it.
Thank you, God bless you and welcome to the Principles First Summit.”