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GOP, play offense in Obama's second term

By William J. Bennett, Special to CNN
January 23, 2013 -- Updated 1433 GMT (2233 HKT)
John Boehner, left, and Mitch McConnell in 2012. We can't just blame the Republican leadership, says William Bennett.
John Boehner, left, and Mitch McConnell in 2012. We can't just blame the Republican leadership, says William Bennett.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • William Bennett: Here is some advice for the GOP in the second Obama term
  • Bennett: Don't just blame GOP leadership; the choice of the people also matters
  • He says conservatives must win the cultural war to change political institutions
  • Bennett: The American people voted in big government, and they will be punished for it

Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- If President Barack Obama's inaugural address was any indication, his second term will be a doubling down of the progressive, big government agenda.

With that in mind, here is some advice for conservatives and the Republican Party for the next four years of Obama's presidency:

Don't blame the GOP leadership

William Bennett
William Bennett

First and foremost, if we are to prevail, we cannot afford to continue firing upon and wounding or maiming our own soldiers and officers. We need everyone in the fight.

It is more difficult to be in a position of governance, such as John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, than a journalist, pundit or conservative talk show host. Trust me, I've been in both arenas. It's much harder to be Boehner and the Republican leadership than it is to be Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Medved, etc.

Unlike those who operate solely in the arenas of commentary, opinion and philosophy, Republicans in Washington bear the responsibility and burden of actual governance, where ideological purity must often yield to compromise. Much of the blame placed at the feet of Republican leadership by many in the party or the commentariat lies not with the party or its leaders but ultimately, as in all things with a democratic republic, with the choice of the people.

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Face reality

William Buckley aptly described conservatism as the politics of reality. As such, we must recognize the realities of political governance. You cannot govern unless you have power. That is, Republicans cannot govern with control of only one half of one third of the branches of government.

They can block and prevent, but they cannot impose. Our agenda, our goals and our expectations should be oriented to these facts of reality.

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It's the culture, stupid

Conservatives are losing the culture war when, according to a 2011 Pew Research poll, 49% of Americans ages 18-29 have a positive view of socialism while just 46% have a positive view of capitalism. Such views are the products of our education system and the movies, music and entertainment young Americans consume. We must change those cultural institutions before we can truly change our political institutions in the long term.

The roots of our cultural and educational outreach must be as far reaching as the left's. This means broadening our scope of influence outside Fox News and conservative talk radio and into the left's strongholds of Hollywood and higher education. Perhaps some of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on PACs could be better spent taking back the culture.

Play offense

In politics, as in sports, you're either on offense or you're on defense. Be on offense. This is a simple maxim, but one too often neglected.

He who initiates sets the terms of debate and forces the dialogue on his terms. Gov. Scott Walker's aggressive fiscal reforms in Wisconsin are an example of effective political offense.

Elevate the next generation

During the 2012 presidential primaries, conservatives often lamented the absence of rising Republican stars such as Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Bob McDonnell, Gov. Bobby Jindal, Gov. Susana Martinez, Gov. Scott Walker, Rep. Paul Ryan and so on. Our bench is strong, but now it's time for the bench to take the field.

Politics: After inauguration, political reality returns to Washington

Consequences of big government

The American people must realize for what they voted when they re-elected Obama and a Democratic-controlled Senate. So far, they've been immunized from many of the consequences. But now, with the expiration of the payroll tax cut and the gradual implementation of ObamaCare, the taxes of almost all Americans have risen, along with many of their health care premiums.

Conservatives must draw the direct link between higher taxes and premiums and Democratic policies. As St. Paul instructs, misery teaches lessons that success doesn't. The American people voted in big government, and they will be punished and made to pay for it in immiseration.

Don't become cynical

Do not make people more cynical or pessimistic about politics or the political system. Every day on my radio show, I hear of people withdrawing from the political arena into a cocoon of disengagement and discouragement. We cannot allow this to happen.

We must encourage the American people to be active and involved in important policy decisions.

It was the great novelist Walker Percy who warned of America's downfall, not at the hand of a great outside power, but from crumbling within.

Politics: Republicans assess Obama's address

"Probably the fear of seeing America, with all its great strength and beauty and freedom ... gradually subside into decay through default and be defeated, not by the communist movement, but from within, from weariness, boredom, cynicism, greed and in the end helplessness before its great problems," Percy said.

We must get our heads up. As Margaret Thatcher said to us often, "Don't go wobbly," and, "Cheer up. America is a strong country."

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.

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