Editor’s note: Below is the video of Senator Ron Johnson’s speech at the David Horowitz Freedom Center’s 2013 West Coast Retreat. The event was held February 22nd-24th at the Terranea Resort in Palos Verdes, California. A transcript of the speech follows.
Senator Ron Johnson: My story began from a standpoint of political life and about September of 2009, when I was asked to speak at a Tea Party in October that year, and people came to me as a business person and said “Would you talk to us about the harmful effect of government regulation on business?” I said, “Well, I’m happy to talk, but that’s not what I want to talk about.” If you remember, that was the summer of 2009 and that was during the debate over Obamacare, and this is not an exact quote — I would call it maybe an unkind paraphrase — but this is exactly what President Obama meant. He said “Those greedy, money-grubbing doctors, they’ll take out a set of tonsils or amputate a foot for a few extra bucks.”
Now, I found that offensive on so many different levels, but in particular, I found it offensive because our first child, our daughter, Carey, was born with a congenital heart defect. Her aorta and pulmonary artery were reversed, and so the first day of life, she was rushed down to Milwaukee Children’s Hospital where one of those “greedy, money-grubbing doctors” came in at 1:30 in the morning and saved her life with a procedure. And then eight months later when her heart was the size of a small plum, another group of incredibly dedicated medical professionals totally rebaffled the upper chamber of her heart. Her heart operates backwards now, but for about the last five years, she has been working as a nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit. Now, she’s taking care of those little babies. She was studying to be a nurse practitioner. She graduated this summer and she got a job back at Milwaukee Children’s Hospital and a couple of weeks ago, unbeknownst to her, the doctor that saved her life was doing grand rounds. He’s retired now. So it’s kind of a nice little closing of that circle.
But the reason I like to tell that story, and the reason it sets up my talk, is the reason my story has a happy ending — our story has a happy ending – is because my wife Jane and I, we had the freedom — the freedom — to call up Boston Children’s Hospital, call up Chicago Children’s, talk to the best surgeons in the world to find out what is the most advanced surgical technique. That’s why Carey turned out so well. That’s what’s at stake. That’s the story I told during that Tea Party speech. I also, by the way, during that speech, defended big pharma and big oil. Silly me, I actually want lifesaving new drugs, and maybe I’m the only guy that drives his gas tank down to five miles and I’m kind of happy there is a gas station on virtually every corner in America. (Laughter).
So people came up to me after that speech and said “I liked your speech, I liked your speech. Why don’t you run for office?” Well, my reply was universal, “Because I’m not crazy.” (Laughter). “And who would want to go through what Michelle Bachman went through? Who would want to do that? Who would want to subject themselves to that process?” Well, a couple of months later, they passed Obamacare, and I certainly recognized what an assault on our freedom that represents, how that is going to destroy the quality of healthcare, that medical innovation that we have come to expect. Let’s face it, medical miracles are produced here in America and, oh, by the way, it’s going to be the final nail in the coffin in terms of just bankrupting this country. So I stepped up to the plate and now I’m there. Yikes! What a process that is. (Applause).
But when I entered politics, the theme I wanted for my campaign was freedom. We are in a fight for freedom. It’s very sad. This country — I call it — it’s a 236-year-old experiment, something precious, but after 236 years, we are still in the same fight for freedom that our founding fathers found themselves in. It sad, but it’s just true. We’re always going to be in that fight. And what is amazing, what is sad, is the reason that we’re in that fight is because far too many Americans have either forgotten. What’s even more sad is they were never taught the foundation, the premise of this nation and it simply this. It’s that government is necessary. Our founders understood that, but it’s not here to solve our problems. Our founding fathers realized that government, by and large, was something to fear because as it grew, our freedoms receded just necessarily. So now today, far too many Americans are looking to the government to solve their problems. I can’t tell you how much it drives me nuts when people come up and say “What’s your jobs program?” My jobs program is dismantle that beast.
Audience Member: Right.
Senator Ron Johnson: But now, as a result of that attitude, that cultural shift, that amnesia, now far too many Americans are willingly trading their freedom and ours at the ballot box for a very unfulfilled promise of economic security. It’s just not working. How did we get ourselves in this position? Well, that’s why I reached out to David Horowitz. He knows. Anybody with white hair here saw it happen in the ’60s when the radicals took over the university system and in particular — I won’t get into all that detail. David Horowitz is obviously far more versed in that, but in particular, when you control our colleges of education, the law, of journalism, of economics — I’ve added that since I’ve been there — you control at our culture. And the left has had lock-step control over our culture now for 40 years.
So it’s not surprising that we have a problem and I don’t know how many of you saw Dr. Benjamin Carson. (Applause). Okay. One of the points he made during that phenomenal speech was how back in the 1800s, the test they gave sixth-graders upon graduation, most college graduates could not pass that test anymore. We have purposely dumbed down our population. As a result of that, our population is very susceptible to demagoguery and that’s what you’re seeing. So what we’re facing now in this country is we’re facing a president that’s basically a demagogue. That’s the problem. I mean, this is what we’re up against. We’re up against a strategy of the left that I always call — it’s diabolically simple; it’s depressingly effective. It’s simply this: addict Americans to government. That’s it; that’s all it is, just addict Americans to government. You can be a congressperson, a new senator, go to Washington, and nobody has got to tell you what you’ve got to do. All you have to do is try and grow government just a little bit, that’s it.
So what’s our response? Well, it hasn’t been very good because we don’t have strategies; we don’t. I hate to tell you this, but we don’t have a strategy, and the difficulty we face because the media is not even not on our side; they’re operating against us. But the example I use for my colleagues — I am (inaudible), but basically, I’m a salesman, and so we’re trying to market ideas here, but here’s what we’re up against. So I use this analogy. The left is giving away candy. You don’t have to buy it; they’re giving it away and it’s tasty stuff. And what are we faced with as conservatives? We’re the folks sitting on the sidelines going “Yes, I know you like that candy, but here’s the problem; it’s caused a cavity. No, it’s even worse than that. That cavity has abscessed and it’s worse than that. That abscess has now caused an infection and it’s in the body and if we don’t cure it, you’re going to die.”
And so the left is still saying “No, no, no, don’t worry about that. Social Security is still solvent.” The left is saying “No, keep eating that candy, it’s really good for you,” and we’re the ones sitting there going “No, we got the shot of Novocain and we’ve got the drill.” Do you understand the challenge? Now, the only way you combat that enormous challenge is you have to have a strategy of your own. What is our strategy? We don’t even have a strategic planning process. In the business world — and that’s the perspective I bring here as a business person. I come into Washington and the first thing I realize, or the first thing I thought, the assumption is that well, we’re a Republican team, right, Louie? The House, the Senate, we are working together. We’re going to utilize the house strategically, pass really good pieces of legislation, put pressure on Harry Reid and President Obama — no, not quite. The House, for the lack of coordination, might as well be 500 miles away. I mean, it’s just incredibly sad.
Let me ask you a question. We spent $6 billion or $7 billion last year during this election. What did America learn? Virtually nothing, nothing true. We learned a falsehood. We learned that if you just make those top 1%, 2% pay their fair share and have a balanced approach, all our problems will be solved. Well, obviously, that’s not going to work. So the solution to the problem here really is information. Our education system has purposely dumbed down our population. We don’t teach American exceptions and we don’t teach history, we don’t teach economics. So with our education system lost to us for decades — unless David can be more successful quicker than I think he can be — we have got to find another venue for reeducating the population, for informing them. We need to find [forced multipliers].
For my own part, what I’m trying to do is I’m trying to tap into a network of individuals, of Americans and patriots, that actually understand what made this country great. I think there is one that exists; I was part of it. That’s small little sliver of American population, that 1%, 1.5% of the American population that own business, operate businesses, manage businesses. You can read about the free market system. You can actually say you believe it, but until you’ve actually operated within it, until you’ve maybe bid on $1 million order, you drop your price 15%, you dramatically improved your quality, you dramatically improved your customer service, and you still lost the order for a penny a pound. That’s the point in time when you realize the wonder and power of a free market competitive system. It’s those individuals that have got to step up to the plate. We’ve got a great deal of credibility that people who work with them, they’ve got to get informed, and they’ve got to spread that information around.
I was at a breakfast meeting of the Business Roundtable about a year ago and the head of Boeing stood up and he said “We’re the Business Roundtable. We represent the largest corporations in America, who I realize are not in good standing with the American public, but that’s a conversation for another day.” I was the first senator to stand up and after that and went right to that comment. I said, “We can’t afford to have that be a conversation for another day.” How did we get into position in this country where businesses are demonized, where the demagoguery against businesses actually works politically? Well, that gets right back to the first part of my speech. The liberals control our universities. We’ve got to get that back.
So I’ve been traveling around the country talking to groups like this, trying to engage people in a strategic planning process, but also to engage their minds to tell them to do what I didn’t do with my company. I never talked to my employees about politics. I kind of thought it was off-limits. Well, it’s not off-limits anymore. We simply can’t afford to make it be off-limits. One of the things we have to do is we have to provide those individuals the tools to start the conversation with their employees. For my part, it sounds a little boring, but I go around and I go to businesses, and I’ve got a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation, and you’re very lucky today. I don’t have a screen and I’m not going to subject you to it. (Laughter). I’ve got a pretty good capability of taking a group of smiling faces and turn them into frowns.
Let me just give you a couple — verbally — a couple of pieces of information from those slides that people simply don’t understand. The first slide really starts out — it’s a graph. It shows the size of government in relationship to the size of our economy. Only 100 years ago, the federal government was 2% of our economy. Back then, state and local governments were 5%, so total government was 7%. Now, the federal government is about 23% on a trajectory to hit 35%. Tack on state and local governments for about 40%, on a trajectory to hit 50%. Now, folks, that is an economic model that simply does not work. I have no idea why anybody wants to go down that path; I have no idea why these Democrats want to control at our lives, but they do.
That’s really the first slide that I really kind of — then I start getting into all the budget information, which I’m not going to talk about today, but the last two slides are not about budgetary statistics. They are about societal statistics, metrics, and they’re given to prove the point that I’m trying to make it, that government is the root cause of the problems, the size, the scope, all the rules, all the regulations, all the government’s intrusion into our lives, and the resulting cost and debt of government. That’s the root cause.
So the first slide — because I’ve been doing this at universities, I put up the cost of college tuition. I’ve got a little bar there in the ’60s where the total cost, tuition, room and board, for a year of college, in the ’60s was about $1,000. Then I show it today. If it would have just grown by the rate of inflation, tuition would have been a little under $7,400, but instead, it’s about $18,000 now, room, board and tuition, 2.4 times the rate of inflation. I asked my audiences “What is so different about higher education that it would actually increase in cost by a rate of 2.4 times the rate of inflation?” I don’t know, just a theory. (Laughter). Inflation went up about a little under 500%, but that cost of college went up by a factor of 1,000%, but government involvement went up by a factor of about 1,500%.
So in all of our good intentions of trying to make college more acceptable — or accessible — we have driven up the cost and we have made it less accessible and really made people dependent on the government and the loans and the fact that we now entice our children to take on debt to the tune of $1 trillion collectively. That’s one of the immoral things we’ve done to our younger generation.
The next slide is really the most dangerous one. It’s about out-of-wedlock birthrates. I don’t know, I think most people in this audience would agree with me, but I think the family is the foundational building block of any successful society. So the slide starts from 1940s to 1966, where out-of-wedlock birthrates went from 4% to 8%. It had doubled. And good people like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat senator — Daniel Patrick Moynihan was pretty concerned about that, wrote about it and spoke about it. The property rates had actually been coming down and the number of people had probably been coming down, but they were still too high. So collectively, we’re a compassionate society. We want to help people that can’t help themselves; we want to help people to help themselves. So collectively, we embarked on a $16 trillion war on poverty — $16 trillion. Just coincident to that, it equals the share of our federal debt.
So the last slide shows the results of that war. Did it work? Well, poverty rates actually — the number of people in poverty went from 23 million to 43 million. Okay, the Population grew, so what about the poverty rate? Well, that went from 12% to 14%. Well, maybe, I asked the audience — maybe — just on really the most dangerous metric here, out-of-wedlock birthrates, maybe that compassionate, that well intentioned war on poverty worked. No, sorry, it went from 8% to 41%. And then I just ask my audience go Google [thought experiment]. How could a government’s involvement, all those good intentions, result in out-of-wedlock birthrates from 8% to 41%? Well, could it be all the incentives we provide people not to get married?
One of the first people I met on the campaign trail was a state senator. His entire stump speech talked about a single mom working hard, who we have a great deal of sympathy for. She makes $15,000 part time; doesn’t pay tax, she gets the earned income tax credit. Then he totals up the dollar value for benefits. His figure came to about $51,000; I’ve kind of gone back and I calculated about $43,000. I asked my audience, now if she wants to increase her take-home pay, what does she do? She has another child out of wedlock, right?
Audience Member: Yes.
Senator Ron Johnson: If she wants to lose it all, she finds somebody to support her and she gets married.
Audience Member: Right.
Senator Ron Johnson: Now, unless we, as a society, are willing to take a look at that, and honestly, with our eyes wide open, take a look at the effect of the unintended consequences of all of our good intentions, we’re never going to solve these problems. That’s some of the information we’ve got to convey. So we’ve got a lot of challenges ahead of us here.
When I emailed David and I asked him what he would like me to talk about, he said, “Well, people are pretty depressed. Why don’t you give them something to be hopeful about?” (Laughter). So that’s a pretty tall order, David, but let me try. During the recall election, as I traveled around the State of Wisconsin, and I talked to the volunteers, I talked to the donors, listen, I knew they were weary, I knew the donors were tapped out. I know you folks, after November 6, let’s face it, that was a body-blow to freedom. So we’re pretty depressed about that. So I understand that totally, but I also understood exactly how obnoxious my response was — tough.
This country is far too precious to give up on it. What gives me hope, what keeps me going is, I don’t know, Dr. Benjamin Carson, that gives me some hope. When I travel around to the universities and I talk to kids, and I slowly lay out the vision of this country, “We hold these truths,” and I see these kids glued to the edge of their seat — I saw the way they responded to Michelle; I saw the way they responded to Ron Paul’s vision of individual liberty, individual freedom. That gives me hope.
Like most members of Congress, what really gives me the most hope is the contact I have with the finest among us. I’ll tell you just one short little story. Most of us go over to Bethesda now. We go — well, Walter Reed now over to Bethesda, and I will admit the first time I went to Walter Reed, it was not something I was looking forward too. I mean, I knew what I was going to see — men and women with horribly broken bodies. I went over to Walter Reed the week before they closed it down and transferred people to Bethesda. I went to the rehabilitation ward and there were 12 members of the military there. Five of them were missing three limbs, and when I say missing three limbs, there’s not much left. One of those men had his beautiful wife and daughter helping him with his rehabilitation, which tells us it’s not just about them. It’s not just their sacrifice; it’s the sacrifice of their mothers, their fathers, their husbands and wives, their sons and daughters.
Another one of those triple amputees I was talking to said “Sir, what I get done with my rehabilitation, I go up to the floor where the new guys come in and kind of take it upon myself to boost their morale.” Where do we find these people? There’s no way that you can leave an experience like that not totally inspired. They’re not giving up; we can’t give up.
Now, my main message here is I’ve traveled around the country and I’m sure, Michelle, you agree, Louie, the American spirit is alive. It might be a little bit imperiled with President Obama in the office here, with Harry Reid as the majority leader, but it’s alive. It’s living in your hearts; it’s certainly living in the hearts of the finest among us. So it’s our job to make sure that it not only survives for future generations, but that it thrives. That’s our task. That is what I am begging you to do, so please stay engaged. This country is worth preserving and it’s up to we, the people, to do just that.
So enjoy your dinner and enjoy Michelle later on. Thank you.
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