By JEB BUSH
The central mission of conservatives is to reignite American social mobility—restoring the right to rise.
Americans have the sense that the economy is fragile, that its rewards are unfairly tilted toward the few, and that the greatest prosperity in this century will be enjoyed by people in other lands and not by our children.
This conclusion is wrong. America could be on the threshold of its greatest century.
With new drilling technologies, the United States will soon have an energy surplus. This means trillions of dollars in new wealth and a foreign policy not dominated by oil.
Given advances in agriculture and bioengineering, America could be the Saudi Arabia of grain in a century when the world is clamoring for more food. Wireless communication, artificial intelligence and rapid advances in life sciences are transforming every facet of American business and daily life. Entire classes of diseases are on the verge of being eradicated by manipulating individual molecules on the surfaces of living cells.
Technological innovation means that in the coming decades, driverless vehicles will flawlessly move people and products on our highways, never getting lost, never having accidents. The development of 3D printing machines is racing ahead—and they will be down-scaled for home use, so that consumers can instantly create thousands of objects at the touch of a button.
This country is younger than all other industrialized nations, and if we get immigration right, we’re going to stay young. By 2050, China will have more old people than the United States has people.
These are but a few of the country’s advantages, and collectively they point toward a century of unparalleled prosperity and world leadership.
But the bright future is at risk if the federal government continues on its arc of irresponsibility. America’s government-spending addiction and its lackluster system of public education are the two greatest impediments to achieving the country’s potential.
I know conservatives have the solution. As governor of Florida, I balanced the state budget for eight years in a row while cutting taxes every year. I have dedicated my adult life to revolutionizing schools to make them serve children and parents and not an indifferent bureaucracy.
All Republican successes at the state level can be undone if the GOP continues to lose presidential elections. The party will forfeit its opportunity to chart a better future for the republic. In the last six presidential elections, more than 20 million times, Americans made the conscious decision that someone other than a Republican offered the nation a better future. This is because too often the conservative message was focused on what we are against, not on what we support.
We can learn from our mistakes. We must move beyond the divisive and extraneous issues that currently define public debate. The Republican Party must not write off entire segments of American society by assuming that its principles have limited appeal.
For the same reason that millions of immigrants from every nation were drawn to American shores, we need to draw into the Republican Party people from every corner of society. That can be done, because conservative principles, not liberal dogma, best reflect the ideals that made this nation great.
These core principles—greater individual responsibility, more personal freedom, smaller and more effective government—are the only principles that empower people to rise to the top, to raise a family and to be free.
The face of the Republican Party needs to be the face of every American. Real relationships take time to grow, and they begin with a genuine interest in the stories, dreams and challenges harbored within each of us.
I met Berthy Aponte, the mother of a developmentally disabled child, at a campaign stop in 1998 when she stood up and challenged me to help children like hers. Over the following months, I traveled Florida with Berthy, visited group homes, and talked to parents who feared nothing more than having their disabled child outlive them and become the ward of an uncaring state. My personal connection with Berthy caused me, as a governor, to have a renewed focus on helping the developmentally disabled. Elevating their lives elevated the lives of all Floridians.
Today, the sad reality is that if you’re born poor, if your parents didn’t go to college, if you don’t know your father, if English isn’t spoken at home—then the odds are stacked against you. You are more likely to stay poor today than at any other time since World War II.
Conservatives have allowed liberals to channel the anger and frustration that comes from this oppressive dynamic to attack the very idea of success itself. In their view, anyone who has climbed to the top 1% has committed some form of gross social breach and deserves scorn. This is enormously shortsighted. In a fair capitalist system, financial success should be the byproduct of innovation and achievement.
The central mission of conservatives is to reignite social mobility in this country—restoring the right to rise.
First, America needs a government that allows both small people to rise and large businesses to fail. Government has a role in regulating, but its role shouldn’t include picking the winners and losers.
Second, the country needs to equip every child with the best tools to rise—a quality education. The U.S. spends more per pupil than any other country yet these pupils frequently rank in the bottom 20% on international math and science tests.
Somewhere in America a child is being born whose bold idea may save a life, or the lives of millions. For every child who reaches his full abilities, there are a hundred who could have done the same but are stuck in failing and indifferent schools. Reform-minded conservatives have the resolve and the record to confront and end this tragic waste of human potential.
America needs an education transformation based on standards benchmarked to the best of the world, a system of no-excuses accountability that refuses to accept failure and rewards excellence. The country needs a culture based on empowering parents with an abundance of choices and a deep understanding of the transformative power of digital learning.
Third, Americans need to reestablish that success is a good thing. We do this by offering role models who demonstrate that success begins with a bold idea, that it is often created where nothing formerly existed, and that the resulting wealth can spread to every part of the nation.
Fourth, America needs a new, forward-thinking immigration system that replaces the failed status quo, meets the country’s economic needs and honors its immigrant heritage and the rule of law. For the millions who are here illegally, there should be a path to bring them out of the shadows and into legal status. This path could eventually include citizenship, as long as those who have been waiting patiently to enter the country legally receive priority.
Finally, each of us in the conservative movement needs to recognize the limits of government and the much more powerful influences of parents, churches, charities and role models. There is a political realm and a social realm, and we shouldn’t confuse the two. Government should fill potholes. It is our individual duty to fill the holes in the human heart.
Conservatives can do so much more by setting an example and living by our principles than by merely talking. We need to be out in our communities helping neighbors, mentoring children and demonstrating that generosity, compassion and human potential are immensely more powerful than a thousand government programs.
There is a path forward as conservatives, and our future is extraordinarily bright. We have within our grasp the means by which our country will reclaim its momentum, leave its indelible imprint on this remarkable century and secure a better future for all.
Mr. Bush was the Republican governor of Florida from 1997 to 2007. This op-ed is adapted from his remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., on Friday.