Taking Back America

Senator Ron Johnson delivers his keynote address at the Freedom Center's West Coast retreat.

Editor’s note: The following talk by Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) was delivered at the David Horowitz Freedom Center’s 2012 West Coast Retreat, held March 30th-April 1st at the Terranea Resort in Palos Verdes, California. Video of senator’s speech can also be seen below.

Ron Johnson:  Thank you very much.

Well, first of all, thank you, Robert (Norton).  I don't have to say a whole lot more.  You pretty well got it covered.

I also just have to say, Mike (Rogers), you did a great job in a town that lacks leadership, and let's face it, our nation hungers for leadership.  I know I’m sleeping a little bit easier knowing that someone like you is head of the Intelligence Committee in the House.  I mean it makes me sleep a little bit better at night, so God bless you.


I also have to point out I have to thank David for inviting me here today, giving me this opportunity, but for what he's done for this nation.  I mean David Horowitz to me is a hero.  I've been reading his books for years.  I don't want to date you, but I've been reading David, and he has informed me, he has shaped my opinion, and he's done that for millions of Americans, and extremely important -- he's making extremely important points, so I just want to thank him for what he's done for America.


I said I’m not going to depress you here tonight because I’m going to answer some questions.  That's when I'll depress you if you ask me the right ones.  But I was asked to kind of tell my story, and Robert touched on it a little bit, but I do have an unusual story when it comes to the political world.  I mean I'm not a politician.  I consider myself a citizen legislator.  I consider myself what really was our founders' vision -- people that came to Washington that had a full life, raised a family, had a full career.  You know, take that level of experience and apply it to their nation's problems.

But how I got involved really totally was because of ObamaCare.  And if you think back to the summer of 2009, I heard President Obama -- and this is an unkind paraphrase, but this is exactly what he meant.  He said, you know, these money-grubbing doctors could take out a set of tonsils for a few extra bucks.  He didn't phrase it that way, but that is exactly what he meant.  I found that pretty offensive.

And I was actually asked to give a speech at a tea party in October of 2009.  And they said, "As a business person, will you come and speak about the harmful effect of regulations on businesses?"  I said, "I’m happy to come speak, but that's not what I want to talk about."

Instead, I told the story of our daughter.  I told the story of why President Obama offended me so.  Because our daughter was born with a very serious congenital heart defect.  Her aorta and pulmonary artery were reversed.  So the first day of life, she was taken out of Jane's arms, and I'd kind of commented.  I said, "She looks a little blue," and the nurse said, "Oh, that's common."  About an hour later, the doctor said, "We've got to rush her down to Milwaukee Children's, where at 1:30 in the morning, one of those "money-grubbing doctors" came in and saved her life.

And then eight months later, when her heart was the size of a small plum, another group of incredibly wonderful, dedicated, highly skilled medical professionals, in seven hours of open-heart surgery, totally rebaffled the upper chamber of her heart.

Her heart operates backwards right now, but she's a 28-year-old nurse.  She's working at neonatal intensive care unit now herself.  Now, she's saving those little babies.

And the punch line is our story had a happy ending because my wife, Jane, and I, we had the freedom.  We had the freedom to call up Boston Children's, Chicago Children's, talk to the world's best heart surgeons and find out what is the most advanced surgical correction for that condition.

After that speech, people came up to me and said, "Liked your speech.  Why don't you run?"  Because I'm not crazy.  I like my life.  I'm conservative.  I want to be productive.  Who would ever want to get involved in politics?

Then on Christmas Eve, pretty much the middle of the night, they passed ObamaCare, and to me, that changed everything.  And so I stepped up to the plate because I realized it truly is the greatest assault on our freedom in my lifetime.

Now, I've been serving for a year and three months, two days, 14 hours -- but who's counting? -- in Senator Harry Reid's "do nothing" Senate.  It's been a little frustrating.

But I have to admit last week was the most hopeful week I've spent in Washington yet.  I actually, because this is such an important issue for me, I got tickets for all four sessions in the Supreme Court.  And particularly Tuesday, the day that they argued the individual mandate, I loved to hear the clarity of Justice Thomas -- I mean of Justice Kennedy.  I don't totally trust him, but I was optimistic as he pretty well laid out the case.  Basically, he said, is it true now that we're actually going to force an American to engage in commerce so we can regulate it?  If so, that is going to change the relationship between the federal government and the individual in a very fundamental way.  He got it.  He understood it.

One of my comments as I was kind of studying to read up for the hearing -- I'm not an attorney.  I'm an accountant.  I'm a business guy.  I started reading the case law, not in detail but the summaries of it, and the precedent upon which all this explosion in government has occurred was an incredibly simple Supreme Court case that occurred 70 years ago, Wickard vs. Filburn, and it was about a wheat farmer that unfortunately in a unanimous decision -- because Roosevelt was trying to pack the court and they were intimidated by Roosevelt -- in a unanimous decision, Supreme Court said a wheat farmer in Ohio didn't have the right to grow wheat for his own personal consumption.

Now, I can't think of a more basic human right, a more basic freedom than to be able to grow your own wheat for your own consumption.  What we have in the last 70 years created is layer after layer after layer of complicated precedent.  We are being held hostage.  One of the comments I made is we are collectively suffering from the Stockholm syndrome here.  We're being held hostage by, no offense, attorneys, freedom-depriving precedent, mind-numbing legal jumbo, when, in fact, this is very simple.  It's as simple as does a farmer have the right to grow his own wheat for his own consumption.

We need to get back to that level of simplicity and describe that to the American people, but we're suffering from the Stockholm syndrome because now we're begging the Supreme Court to please, please, would you just reserve that last shred of freedom for us?  We would be so grateful.

How'd we ever get to that point?  You know, one of the things as I travel around Wisconsin and I depress people, I've been trying to, as simply as possible, describe the problem.  I do it with charts and graphs.  I’m an accountant.  I use numbers.  I can throw those at you.  But in the end, it's very simple to describe our problem.  It's very difficult to solve, but it's very simple to describe the problem.  It's that far too many Americans have forgotten the foundational premise of this nation.  They've forgotten what our founders knew.

Let's face it.  Our founders came from dictatorial monarchies and aristocracy.  They knew the government was something to fear, not something to solve your problems because they understood that as government grew, freedom receded.

So today, far too many Americans look to government to solve their problems.  Far too many Americans are willingly trading their freedom for a false sense of economic security.  Anybody here feeling particularly secure?

What caused this?  This is where David comes in.  This is what David has described unbelievably well.  The left has been relentless.  They've been depressingly effective at addicting Americans to government.  They've had the simple strategy evolve.  I'd call it a diabolical strategy.  We will addict Americans to government.  Then we'll tell them, "We're going to protect your benefits."  That's all they have to do.  And that's all they do do.

Now, I was talking to Bob over here at my table.  One of my charts talks about the size of government.  To me, I'm a manufacturer.  I'm always looking for the root cause.  The root cause really is the size, the scope, all the rules, all the regulation, all the intrusion of government into our lives and the cost of government.

Do you realize 100 years ago the federal government was only 2% of our economy, local government was 5%, so the total was 7%?  Now, you talk about capitalism, socialism, communism.  You know, in the end, it's just a number.  It's that number.

Today, the federal government is 24%.  You add in state and local government, we're at 16%.  Total, 40.  Forty cents of every dollar filters through some form of government.  And I don't find government particularly effective or efficient.

To put it into perspective, Norway is also 40%.  Greece -- anybody hear of Greece recently?  They're at 47.  By the way, their per-capita debt is less than ours.  Italy's 49%, France is 53.

No, congratulations, America.  We have arrived at the lower end of European-style socialism, and again, I don't know anybody would want to go down that path.  I mean we see the results of the Soviet Union.  You take a look at what a basket case Venezuela is, and anybody vacationing in the island paradise of Cuba recently, and the fact is we're not.

So what I've been trying to develop -- turn my efforts to is informing the American public, persuading them, and winning the argument.  That's what we have to do.  That's the first thing we have to do.  We have to win the moral argument.  Before we rush to the solution, before we rush to the piece of legislation, we need to inform, educate, persuade, and win the argument.

That's been my efforts, and practically, in Wisconsin, my first goal is do everything I can to make sure that Scott Walker is not recalled.


You know, in Wisconsin, Scott Walker stepped up to the plate under repugnant levels of intimidation.  You guys haven't even heard half the story.  And the members of the legislature showed the courage trying to close a $1.8 billion-a-year deficit.  And you see all the trouble that occurred with that.

The federal government, our deficit's $1.3 trillion.  It's almost 1,000 times worse.  We're going to need elected officials with some courage, and I can't think of a worse thing for our democracy if the reward in Wisconsin for stepping up to the plate, taking the hard votes, making the tough decisions, if your reward is be turned out of office before your term is up.  So that's goal number one.

Goal number two -- this is the most significant one -- we've got to make sure that President Obama is a one-term president.


Now, Mike was talking about how divisive this president has been.  The absolute best article I read on his scapegoating was written by Charles Krauthammer, and the concluding paragraph, to paraphrase it, basically went like this -- President Obama is far too intelligent not to understand what he's unleashing on this country, but if it helps his reelection, he doesn't care.  That's what we need to defeat.

And I'd say that just -- so that's getting past that election.  We've got to do everything.  We've got to pull together.  Now is the time to pull together, get behind a nominee, and let's defeat Barrack Obama.

And then after that, we need to recognize that the left has been relentlessly pursuing their agenda for 100 years.  This isn't just about one election.  This is going to be a decades-long struggle, and we've got to come up with a strategy.  We've got to come up with a message.  We need to take back our education system.


As business owners, I know I've got some in this -- you've got to start informing the people that work with you that business isn't evil; it's what made America great.


And I will say just the last thing before I start taking questions that we absolutely have to do.  We can't sit back and be reactive to people running for office and then support any old buddy.  We need to proactively go out and recruit patriots.  We've got to have a game plan here.  The left has got their game plan, and we've got to come up with one ourselves.  We've got to find Americans that love this country, understand it's precious, that it needs to be preserved.  We've got to stand those folks up, and then we've got to support them.

So with that, I’m happy to take some questions.


Question and Answer

I know that wasn't a beginning.  I'll save it for the end.

David Horowitz:  Just want to say I first heard of Ron Johnson during the 2010 campaign when the news said there was this businessman in Wisconsin who had never been involved in politics and felt that the country was in dire -- in danger.  And it occurred to me that that's my idea of hope and change.


And this spring, I got a call from Senator Johnson, and I know that when a Republican legislator calls me, that's because he wants things to change.

I just spent a day -- an hour-and-a-half today with Senator Johnson, and I can tell you what you already know just from listening to him.  This is the real article.  This is leadership that we need.  I’m going to support him.  I hope you all will get behind him, too.


So the first question is about ObamaCare.  How much more would it cost than the administration's estimate?

Ron Johnson:  Oh, good numbers.  You know, the fact that this is ever going to reduce our deficit is a total fiction.  When it was originally proposed, escorted by the CBO, they took six years' worth of spending against 10 years' worth of revenue generation and about $1.1 trillion of revenue generation and cost savings and about $938 billion' worth of spending.

Now, what you need to understand is in that $1.1 trillion was about $529 billion' worth of Medicare cost reductions.  Now, we haven't implemented the $208 billion of the sustainable growth rate formula because Congress actually understands that if we reduce payments to physicians, we'll probably reduce the supply.  We'll probably reduce the access seniors have to medical care.

Does anybody really think we're going to take $529 billion out of Medicare?  That's how much of a fiction that was.  And then if you start moving the spending window forward, I mean the current window right now between 2013 and 2022, it'll be about $1.7 trillion' worth of actual spending.  When it really kicks in about 2016 to 2025, now you're looking about $2.5 trillion against -- get rid of the Medicare savings because I don't think that's going to happen -- somewhere between five or six or seven or $800 billion' worth of revenue from the taxes, fees, and penalties.

And, again, as a business person, if you're going to tax medical devices, if you're going to tax drugs or going to tax insurance companies, I think they pass those costs along.  So that revenue generation to the federal government is just going to get tacked right back into medical care.  It doesn't bend the cost curve down; it bends the cost curve up.

So this is going to destroy our budget, and I’m not even talking about yet about the tens of millions of people that will lose their employer-sponsored care.  CBO said a million people would out of about 160 million people who get employer-sponsored care.  I bought healthcare for 31 years.  ObamaCare changes the equation from a standpoint if somebody buys insurance.

The equation now is do I try and comply with 15,000 pages of regulations where we're at today, and they've only begun, 15,000, and then pay $20,000 for a family plan?  Or do I pay the $2,000 penalty -- and because of ObamaCare, I'm not exposing my employees to financial risk; I'm making them eligible for huge subsidies -- $10,000 if you have household income of 64,000 bucks, which, by the way, is about $13,000 higher than the median income.  What do you think people are going to do?

My guess is McKenzie and Company is probably right when they say 30 to 50% of employers today say they're going to drop coverage.  If that happens, by the way, that would be 80 million people times about an average subsidy 5 to $7,000.  You're looking at about 3, 4, $500 billion a year added cost to ObamaCare.  So keep your fingers crossed on Justice Kennedy.

David Horowitz:  We are often disappointed -- understatement -- with Republican leadership.  Do they not understand the crisis the country is in, or are there other explanations?

Ron Johnson:  Mike, what should I do here?

Unidentified Speaker:  I'll get your watch.

Ron Johnson:  Wow.  I don’t know how to say this without coming across like holier than thou.  I think you all recognize the fact that we have in Washington just far too many politicians that don't have any kind of real world experience, have never operated in the private sector.  Their primary goal is to get reelected.  It's just a fact.  Not necessarily bad people, but their whole upbringing, everything they've always wanted to do revolved around government.

And we were talking earlier with David, when I was meeting with him, conservatives, in particular, are at a huge disadvantage in the political arena.  I mean a true conservative doesn't want to have anything to do with government.  You know, (inaudible).

Liberals, this is their lifelong ambition.  This is what they strive to do.  They want to control our lives.  So, unfortunately, there are too many Republicans that are kind of like that, as well.

So that's why I say we need to be proactive.  We really do need to go out and find people that love this country, people like Mike, people that actually lived a full life, and that citizen legislator, that vision of our founding fathers, people who that are willing to go there for a short period of time and then go home.  And I think that would make all the difference in the world, but that's kind of my basic description of the problem.


David Horowitz:  Senator Johnson, given their wisdom in sending you to the Senate, what is your sense of the Wisconsin electorate as to the upcoming recall election?

Ron Johnson:  Well, I can report that certainly the people that elected me are every bit -- every bit -- as ginned up and enthusiastic and they're going to come out to support people.

The one race we already had, the surrogate race, was the Supreme Court with David Prosser, and in every county except for Dane and Milwaukee, he basically outpolled both Scott Walker and I from a percentage standpoint.

So the election is really going to turn on Dane County and Milwaukee County.  Dane County is where Madison is, the people's republic.

And the good news is the election's going to take place in June.  A lot of college kids go home, so we won't be able -- you won’t get their votes.  I mean it's just basic fact.

And the other fact is that Scott Walker's reforms are working.  I mean the fellow that he's going to run against, probably Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, utilized his reforms to save Milwaukee $24 million.  I think that will be brought up in the campaign.

But district after district, school district after school district, city government after city government was able to balance their budget, save millions of dollars on the healthcare because they didn't have to buy it through the teacher union healthcare, which was filling the teacher union's coffers, and it's actually had success.  People's property tax rates went down.

So if we can run an intelligent campaign, as Scott does, and there's -- Pat Caddell was here earlier talking about some pretty interesting focus groups (inaudible) doing, if we run the race intelligently, I'm hopeful, but it's going to be tough.  It's going to be close.

David Horowitz:  Entitlements seem to be the biggest budget issues.  Can they be solved, and how?

Ron Johnson:  Now, from my standpoint, this is a two-step process.  Again, what I said earlier, we've got to inform, we've got to persuade, we've got to win the argument, and then we've got to legislate.  I think way too many people in Washington go right for that bill because they want their name slapped on it to help them get reelected.

To me, we win.  It's a winning argument.  This is our home field advantage when we talk to the American people about how unsustainable our debt and deficit is.  So if we fight the battle to basically cut up America's credit card, to instill the tough fiscal discipline, and we've got the CAP Act, which caps spending statutorily as a percentage of GDP and starts putting on a glide path to equal revenue generation.  We passed Cut, Cap and Balance, which basically did that.  Had way too short a shelf life, but within three days sitting in the Senate, it has 66% support in the American public, 74% for a constitutional amendment.

So I think we need to, first, instill that fiscal discipline to force the other side to come to the bargaining table because that's basically the story of 2011.  President Obama was not negotiating in good faith.  He didn't want to do a deal.  We just kind of suckered right into that thing.  All the secret negotiations.  We gave President Obama credibility when he deserved zero credibility.

I mean think what Mike said.  He lost the other day zero to 414.  Last year in the Senate, he lost zero to 97.  That is a stunning repudiation of his total lack of leadership, and that's something we've got to continue to point out to the American public.

So in terms of -- so getting to entitlements, you've got to put that first step, you've put the fiscal discipline.  Then the other process thing I think you need to do is put everything on budget, everything, and the entitlements you've got to make sure that they have got 75-year solvency.  Require that out of Congress, and then people are going to have to come to the table and you're going to have to start negotiating.

But if we just throw out our proposal, we lose.  That's their home field advantage.  When we go with specific spending cuts, the American public is very schizophrenic.  Say, "Yeah, we realize we've got a spending problem.  Limit us, but, boy, don't cut my program."  So you've got to do it in stages.  That's my opinion anyway.

David Horowitz:  How do you feel about a flat tax and term limits?

Ron Johnson:  I would personally like to mount a Grover Norquist type effort this election -- I've talked to people about this -- requiring every member of Congress running for federal office to sign a term-limit pledge, not a pledge, though, a pledge to vote for a specific term limit bill.


Now, what we have to do, though, what we have to do, is we have to design a reasonable term limit bill.  We've got to hit that sweet spot.  I don't have the exact answer on it.

I'm a co-sponsor of Jim DeMint's.  I think it's too limiting, and Mike, I'd like to work with you on something like that.  But to me, that's a huge winning issue.

In terms of flat tax, I'm willing to do -- I've got a very flexible mind in terms of basic tax reform.  Two principles - let's raise the money we need and do no economic harm.  Let's not do social engineering.  Let's not do economic engineering.  Let's just simply raise the tax and do no economic harm.  If that's the principles going to dramatic tax reform, I think that's how you'd get dramatic tax reform.

David Horowitz:  This is the final one, how to restore our constitutional principles and basic values.

Ron Johnson:  Well, Robert mentioned that I've begun to do what Dave has done, go on to college campuses.  We have to win back the hearts and minds of the young people.  We just do.

Our education system has totally failed.  This is exactly what David has been -- certainly taught me is what the left has done is they've taken over our universities.  We capitulated back in the '60s, conservatives did.  And so from -- they totally control the entire university, but the particular levers of power, the colleges of education, law and journalism and economics, they control the culture.

Now, when you go back to universities and you talk to them, unfortunately, the press has so degraded things like the tea party movement.  I didn't join the tea party caucus because I realized marketing-wise the press has done a pretty good job of painting tea party folks as crazies.  They're not.  They're good, hard-working, honest, tax-paying, God-loving Americans.

Unfortunately, we've gotten to a point in this country if you also say, "I'm a constitutionalist," also, you've got a tin-foil hat on.  We don't have to say that necessarily.

What I did in my speech at University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh is I talked about our founding documents like a business person would.  So to me, the letter of intent is Declaration of Independence.  The Constitution, that's the contract.  And I can't think of a better vision for America than, "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among those are life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness."

Now, if you speak those words to a college crowd and do it accurately, do it slowly, ask them to think about it, talk about 235 years ago, those words were revolutionary.  Yet, our founders called them self-evident because they are.  And point out to young people that another foundation and premise of this nation is contained in that letter of intent, in that powerful vision, that mission statement.  It's that these rights are ours.  They're not the governments.  They're granted to us.  They're endowed to us by our creator.  Do not give them away.

I think if we do that, I think if we have a pointed strategy of winning back the hearts and minds of young people, rely on their propensity to rebel, we just might win them back.  God bless you.  Thank you.

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