THE CONSERVATIVE movement's fascination with policy in Washington too often has blinded it to the critical importance of state policy. Liberals, on the other hand, understood the importance of the states some time ago. During the last few years, they have assembled a string of successes at the state level -- from radical environmental legislation like California's Proposition 65, to labor mandates that destroy jobs and education policy that abandons our children while catering to the greed of the teachers' unions.
Liberal state legislators are supported by a vast array of special-interest groups that have been active in the states for a long time. In fact, the liberal special interests are gaining legislative seats for themselves, and the group that is gaining them at the fastest rate is not women, not racial minorities, not lawyers, or even unions in general, but one particular union -- the radically liberal National Education Association. Is it any wonder that we cannot enact real education reform in any but a handful of states?
The liberals are winning in the states because too many conservatives have not yet realized that they have been outflanked.
While Ronald Reagan was cutting taxes in Washington, and George Bush was promising to hold the line on these tax cuts, virtually every state raised taxes: between 1977 and 1988, state tax revenues soared by a staggering 144 percent.
While we held spending in check at the federal level, state spending soared by nearly twice the annual inflation rate.
While we were loosening the shackles of federal bureaucratic control over American enterprise, the liberals were strangling business with red tape on the state level -- under the guise of cleaning up and protecting the environment.
While we have aimed our sights at Washington, the liberals have exploited our weakness in the states and opened a new front. As we might expect, they have read and implemented Mao's dictum: Take the countryside and the capital will fall.
While Ronald Reagan and the conservatives defeated the left in Washington, the left moved the battlefield to Albany and Austin, Sacramento and Springfield.
We must not underestimate the cost of our losses in the states. The objective of conservative government is not to localize socialism. Bad government which is close to the people is still bad government. Winning in Washington but losing the states means just one thing -- we are still losing.
Conservatives at the state level are hampered by the way we have traditionally defined our policy agenda. For the 1970s and 1980s, ours was an opposition agenda. Even today conservatives often seem to understand better what they oppose -- taxes, government regulation, communist oppression -- rather than what they are for. The conservative agenda often appears to be a negative one; we are the people who just keep saying "no."
Of course, "no" is sometimes the right answer -- the only responsible answer. But a defensive, opposition agenda is not enough. We need an offensive and anticipatory conservative agenda.
Sam Brunelli writes for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.