Five Principles to Guide Our Commonwealth

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Remarks on Receipt of the 2008 Speaker Franklin Award of the Commonwealth Foundation, Nov. 11, 2008

Thank you for this splendid award named for one of my favorite Pennsylvanians. In the spirit of Ben Franklin, let me state in brief five basic principles which I believe should provide guidance to our nation and our Commonwealth as we try to work our way through these perilous times.

First we must ensure that government always acts to serve the interests of the individual citizen as opposed to those of big government, big business, and big labor. Society, now as always, is best served by limiting interference in the day-to-day affairs of the individual, be they men or women of whatever race, ethnic origin or disability, who are trying to make a living, raise their families, worship their God, and improve their quality of life. We must continue to protect the individual citizen from those big institutions which threaten to roll them up in their path.

Number two, we must ensure that the free enterprise system continues to play the most significant role in maximizing individual opportunity. Neither political party should shy from being labeled "the party of business." They should be competing for that title in the effort to grow the economy and create quality jobs – particularly in the sophisticated and complicated global economy in which we must compete. Achievement should be rewarded and all persons should have the chance to rise to the top. We must also recognize what the late John Gardner once said, "The best social program is a good economy." There is wisdom in those words.

Third, we must believe in and practice fiscal responsibility, smaller and more efficient government, better and more productive management, fewer and lower taxes, and a more disciplined and effective budget process. You will forgive me if I point out that meeting these goals during our eight years in Harrisburg enabled us to balance the budget every year without credit card gimmicks; to reduce a record state indebtedness by some $300 million; to cut both individual and business tax rates; to eliminate 15,000 unnecessary jobs from a bloated bureaucracy built up by our predecessors; and still leave a $350 million surplus as a legacy as we left office. That’s what fiscal responsibility means and that’s what good management is about.

Fourth, we should reaffirm our belief in the importance of state and local governments as the proven "laboratories of democracy" in contrast to the notion that all of the wisdom in this great country of ours resides in Washington DC. I’ve spent a great deal of time in Washington DC over the last twenty years or so and I can attest that surely just is not the case. In truth, we must still believe that government closest to the people -state governments and local governments – the folks who guide us on a day to day basis, are generally best positioned to make the wisest decisions for the people.

Finally, we must achieve a proper balance of toughness and compassion in our attitude toward governing. By toughness, I mean cracking down on violent criminals and international terrorists, at home and abroad, while vigorously pursuing fraud, waste, and corruption within government and in the private sector. But we must also believe in compassion – in extending aid to those abroad beset by natural or other disasters and helping those at home trapped by social, economic or personal circumstances beyond their control, in ways designed to break rather than perpetuate the tragic cycle of dependency on government.

It was a great Pennsylvanian and a great Republican President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who perhaps best stated this last proposition, observing "There is, in world affairs, a steady course to be followed between an assertion of strength that is truculent and a confession of helplessness that is cowardly. There is, in our affairs at home, a middle way between untrammeled freedom of the individual and the demands for the welfare of the whole nation. This way must avoid government by bureaucracy as carefully as it avoids neglect of the helpless."

On a partisan basis, you know, of course, that I have been a Republican all my life and continue to take a great interest in my party’s fortunes. Our party took a pretty good shellacking in the last election and the hand-wringers, the finger pointers and the crepe hangers have been out in force since then. But I was reminded that my own entry into politics was prompted by a similar reversal in 1964 when our presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was overwhelmed by LBJ and the Democrats ran up huge majorities in both houses of Congress. And yet four years later we elected a Republican president!

Can it happen again? Of course, it can if we are true to our principles and enlist good men and good women to our cause. That is what this country is about. We must just remember that politics is not a spectator sport and that to preserve our freedom we must exercise it, constantly and wisely. I wish the Commonwealth Foundation well in your efforts to persevere in the quest to fulfill the promise of Pennsylvania and of these United States of America.

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Dick Thornburgh served as Governor of Pennsylvania (1979-87) and Attorney General of the United States under Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush (1988-91). He is currently counsel to the international law firm of K&L Gates LLP in its Washington, DC office.

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