Recap: The 2009 Steamboat Institute Inaugural Freedom Conference

I’ve just returned from a few days in beautiful Steamboat Springs, Colorado, including attending in (and briefly speaking at) the inaugural Steamboat Institute Freedom Conference.  (I encourage you to read the 4 newspaper articles linked to throughout this note.)

Although the event was a first-attempt effort by my Leadership Program of the Rockies Advisory Board colleague, Jennifer Schubert-Akin, you’d never know.  The weekend was remarkable and, from my vantage point, essentially flawless.

Opening the conference (after I gave a 5-minute commercial for the Leadership Program of the Rockies) was political reporter extraordinaire, John Fund (from the Wall Street Journal.)  He gave some very interesting historical perspective, focusing on Ronald Reagan’s warnings that Republicans lose when (1) they stray from core conservative values and (2) when Democrats convince voters that they’ll govern as moderates.  But each time Democrats get the chance, they prove to the nation that they can’t govern as moderates because, as Fund describes, the Democratic special interests (unions, environmentalists, etc) simply won’t let them.  Also, the Democratic leadership in Congress is almost always to the left of the Democratic electorate and generally (though not today) to the left of their own president.  Fund’s conclusion was that just like every other time, the GOP will likely have a resurgence because the Democrats are showing they are not moderates and the Republicans have been reminded of the importance of true fiscal conservatism.

The first day also included several interesting panels, moderated by Tony Blankley who showed a remarkable, nearly encyclopedic knowledge of modern political history.

The panels included a discussion of the current tax and spend situation in our federal government, along with how those issues tie into the health care debate.  Panelists included former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury J. French Hill, the Cato Institute’s Dan Mitchell, and the Galen Institute’s Grace-Marie Turner.  Most of the upshot was that we need to focus on spending as the root cause of tax problems, and that the Obama Administration’s proposals would make our fiscal problems much, much worse.

Next was an interesting and very controversial presentation by Mario Carrera and Marcelo Gaeta, both of Denver’s Spanish-language Entravision television station.  They suggested that politicians are making a huge mistake by not running ads in Spanish to reach Hispanics who are American citizens but who prefer to speak Spanish at home.  Rather than write more about this panel, which generated some rather tense moments in the room, I’ll refer you to the local newspaper’s COVERAGE.

The keynote speaker for the excellent dinner at Hazie’s restaurant, at the top of Steamboat’s ski resort gondola, was Michael Reagan.  (I should mention that on the ride up the gondola, my wife and I watched a black bear – a relatively young one – wander across the grass-covered ski run under us.)  Reagan’s talk was excellent, not only because of the personal stories of him and his father but also because of his focus on the future.  Michael Reagan gave up his nationally-syndicated radio talk show this June after 26 years to focus on his Reagan Legacy Foundation through which he will try to bring the lessons of freedom to America’s youth.  Even my wife, who generally doesn’t love such events, found Michael Reagan enjoyable, “real”, and really interested in making a difference, not just complaining about our current president. Again, the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s COVERAGE of Michael Reagan’s talk.

One of the highlights of the conference for many attendees was the brief but dynamic talk by Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachman (after which I stood up to thank her for “kicking so much ass.”)  Bachman spoke about the political climate in DC, about the follies of “bipartisanship” at this time, and about the fact that conservatives should not assume that the Democrats will not find a way to pass a truly terrible health care bill.

Bachmann talked about her background with a PhD in federal tax law. She told a story of needing to get a clarification on a 14-word section of the commercial tax code: She eventually found someone at the IRS whose whole job was intepreting that 14-word section.  Bachmann said that the experience made her realize that “the average citizen doesn’t have a chance.”

One of the most interesting things Bachmann said was confirming something I’ve said to many people: When people tell me that Obama will back off the policy proposals that the public most hates, I generally reply that Obama is a committed ideologue and, unlike most politicians, will be perfectly happy to leave a far-left legacy even if it means losing his second election for president. Bachmann said that Obama said that very thing to her and a group of Congressmen (and Congresswomen) that he was meeting with earlier this year. Bachmann believe Pelosi falls in this same camp, though Pelosi’s risk is “losing the gavel”, not losing her seat.

After Congresswoman Bachmann came two panels on “climate change”, the first with Pat Michaels and William Gray.  Michaels is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, and a PhD climatologist.  Professor Gray is Professor Emeritus of climatology at Colorado State University and probably the world’s leading expert on hurricanes.  Both men made roughly the same arguments:  The climate is simply too complex for any model to have a decent chance of making accurate long-term predictions.  The effect of humans on climate is little more than a rounding error within other much powerful forces.  And the current “climate change” alarmism is nothing more than an attempt by “watermelons” (green on the outside, red on the inside) to take control of almost every aspect of the American economy.

For possibly the first time outside the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times, I have now seen a newspaper give coverage to the “skeptics” without trying to make them look stupid.  I sincerely thank the Steamboat Pilot for their COVERAGE of Drs. Michaels and Gray, with the headline “Scientists: Global warming conversation is one-sided’s Marc Morano and political media strategist Kirsten Fedewa spoke about the role of the media in the “climate change” debate, with Morano emphasizing that no attack by the alarmists must go unchallenged and Fedewa noting how difficult and important it is to be able to manage a 20-minute (at most) news cycle.

The climate panels were followed by the incomparable Professor James C. Humes, one of the world’s leading experts on Winston Churchill, a man who does a remarkable impression of Churchill helped, no doubt, by the fact that he met Churchill when he (Humes) was 18 and Churchill was already an old man.  While many Americans only know about Churchill’s resilience during WWII, Humes told the audience about Churchill’s deeply pro-capitalist views and his understanding of the dangers of socialism.  Members of the audience were wiping tears from their eyes as they watched this erstwhile Winston Churchill describe what he went through during the war and afterwards.  If anyone ever has the chance to hear Professor Humes speak, I guarantee you he’s worth the price of admission.

I had the privilege of introducing the Conference’s final speaker, Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform – the group which gets federal and state legislators to sign their anti-tax pledge.  Norquist described Republicans who vote for tax increases as being like a “rat head in a Coke bottle”, namely something which does great damage to the brand.  He talked about how “around the table” of conservatives is generally people for whom, regardless of the details of their particular motivating issue, the solution they’re looking for is almost invariably to get the government out of their way.  Around the table of liberal interest groups, however, are “competing parasites”. The way to curb the influence of these groups is to stop throwing money on their table.

Also, Norquist said that it is up to citizens to “provide an exoskeleton” for politicians so they can resist the tremendous pressure often put on them to vote for bad policy, especially tax increases.  Although Norquist’s opening statement that “it’s not fair to expect politicians to have backbone”, he meant it more or less seriously, namely that it’s not reasonable to expect them to stand up against tremendous pressure, often from their own leadership, particularly if there aren’t grassroots activists making sure they know that they will have the voters’ support for doing the right thing.  The exoskeleton we can provide is making sure they know just that.

While I had never heard Norquist speak before, I thought he was excellent. And one of the well-known attendees of the conference (whom I won’t name) told Norquist while I was speaking with him that it was the best he’d ever seen Norquist do. And, for the second time in one day, the usually-liberal Steamboat Pilot newspaper actually gave very fair COVERAGE to a conservative’s presentation.

There were a few consistent themes throughout the conference.  One is that because of Obama, Reid, and Pelosi’s over-reaching, an appreciation for liberty and limited government is on the march in America. However, that march is opposed by determined, hard-working, well-financed liberals and we must attempt to combat them with as much intensity.

Also, something I found particularly refreshing was the repeated emphasis on the difference between Republican and conservative and/or libertarian.  The room of about 150 participants was passionate about the Steamboat Institute’s principles of limited government, lower taxes, free markets, a strong national defense, and individual rights and responsibilities.  They well understood that the GOP has failed in almost every way in recent years. I don’t recall hearing one good word spoken about George W. Bush…and if there was one, it was brief.  This is a group of people who seemed highly motivated – on behalf of issues and principles, not political party – even before coming to the Conference and truly ready to make a difference after it – which was, after all, the very purpose of the Conference.

The Steamboat Institute’s Inaugural Freedom Conference was by all accounts a rousing success.  I can’t imagine what Jennifer will do for an encore next year…but I’ll be there to find out!  And I hope you will too.