In a significant development for Arizona conservatives, the Coalition for a Conservative Majority (CCM), the national, Washington, D.C.-based conservative organization founded by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and chaired by former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell opened its Phoenix-area chapter earlier this year. Earlier this month, the organization also announced the election of seasoned conservative leader and writer Michael Johns as its Phoenix-area chapter President, an early indication that the organization is taking its efforts in the nation’s fifth largest city very seriously.
Conservative leader Michael Johns
Michael Johns brings to CCM over 20 years of industry, public policy, and government experience. One of the nation’s most prominent conservative policy advocates and writers, Johns has served as a White House speechwriter to former President George H. W. Bush, a senior aide to former New Jersey Governor and 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, the nation’s foremost conservative public policy research institute, and an editor of Policy Review, one of the nation’s leading conservative journals.
Johns has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, National Review, and many other publications. He appears regularly on PBS, CNBC, C-SPAN, Fox Morning News, Sirius Satellite, and other networks as a spokesperson for conservative policy positions. Johns is also the author of a widely-read conservative blog.
Over the past two decades, Johns has been at the forefront of many of the nation’s highest profile public policy debates, providing an articulate and consistent defense of conservative positions on national security, foreign policy, health care, energy, fiscal and other issues confronting the nation.
In addition to his extensive public policy and governmental experience, Johns has significant private sector experience, serving for over a decade as a health care executive with several global companies in the pharmaceutical, home health, medical device and medical supply industries. Born in Pennsylvania, Johns holds a Bachelors in Business Administration from the University of Miami, where he majored in economics and graduated with honors.
Sorona Alliance spoke with Johns on June 21 in Phoenix about his assessment of the current state of modern conservatism, policy issues facing the nation and Arizona, and the role that he envisions CCM playing in supporting and defending conservative policy initiatives.
SA: Congratulations on your leadership role with CCM. A first question: A lot of political observers are increasingly viewing Arizona and Phoenix as a growing center of American conservative political advocacy. Do you see it this way?
Johns: I do. It’s not necessarily a new phenomenon. Goldwater was born here in the early 1900s. That whole Goldwater revolution, which really gave birth to modern conservatism, didn’t start with his 1964 challenge of Lyndon Johnson. It really began with the things he did as a city councilman here. His election to the Senate here in 1958 was key. It paved the way for 1964 and Conscious of a Conservative. It’s impossible to look at modern conservatism and not see the groundswell of support for Goldwater’s efforts and ideas as the bridge that got us here. Those ideas worked on a city level in the late 1940s and 1950s here, then they worked on a state level in 1958, and they gave birth to a national movement in 1964. And without that 1964 race, there never would have been a 1980, in my view. The Reagan revolution wasn’t born in California. It matured there, but it was born right here in Arizona with Goldwater. In my view, that makes Arizona the birthplace of modern American conservatism.
SA: As you know and have said yourself, there is a lot of concern that this Reagan era of conservatism is waning and that the movement is losing its appeal. Do you agree with that?
Johns: No, you need to separate the current angst over major challenges facing this nation from the proposed conservative remedies to those challenges. I believe that this moment is almost proving the opposite conclusion: That conservatism is alive and vibrant and relevant in 2008. It is the most influential political ideology of modern times. And it doesn’t matter what the issue is because when I look at this hugely critical conflict against the forces of global terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, when I see our solutions to this energy crisis in the “drill now” campaign, when I see the market-based solutions emerging for solutions to the crises we face in health care and the devaluation of the dollar, all of the intellectual energy and solutions are coming from conservatism.
Anyone can preach about income redistribution schemes as some class warfare response to our ills. There is no historical evidence—none—of those sorts of solutions ever working for this or any other nation. They won’t work now either. And in this war against global terrorism, I’m concerned that the stakes are being underestimated. There is no solution to this threat short of victory. We will win or we will lose. You can’t say “we will fight al-Qaeda here, but not here.” If you make Iraq what we made Cambodia or Laos during the Vietnam War, and say we will not engage them there, or we just need to get out of there, the signal is sent that there are prices we will not pay in defense of this nation. In a war against barbarism, we then have one foot in our grave. The good news is that the conservative position on this war is proving right. We saw in Basra that this Iraqi military will fight for this cause too. We once had an enemy—a very serious enemy of democracy, human rights, and regional stability—in Saddam. I truly believe we have an ally in Prime Minister Maliki.
SA: Tell us about the Coalition for a Conservative Majority. Where do you see CCM going?
Johns: My own view is that it’s going to be huge. We are tapping into a lot of policy-driven energy and resources. People are galvanizing around conservatism and this moment of time. Any thinking American knows this nation is at the crossroads in nearly every way. So I see CCM taking a lead in helping define, defend, and advance constructive policy solutions to this nation’s challenges. We will lead in authentic ways, offering real solutions to 21st century challenges, and we will prevail. I would not lend my time or energy to any effort that I did not see, at this point, as being central to placing this nation on a constructive course. I see that with CCM. I admire the national leadership of this organization, and I feel this dynamism among the conservative movement in Phoenix. I mentioned Goldwater earlier because I feel that his efforts here in the 1950s gave birth to modern conservatism. Sixty years later, there is still this electricity here. I think we are going to show that modern conservatism wasn’t just born here; I think we are going to show that it was reinvigorated here.
I think it’s also important to realize that, like any membership organization, it’s the CCM members that define the priorities and direction of the organization. I have some very formulated views that I’ve developed over the years, and they by and large reflect traditional conservative policy thinking. But I’ve also learned that leadership is about trusting the people, and the great thing is that we have members whose views and input are very seasoned, and I think that’s something that will only grow further, so my trust goes deep.
And then it’s also important to remember that we are a legitimate coalition. We are looking for any and all allies who share some or all of our conservative agenda. We want to work with people, not against them, and I’m encouraged that, as part of this, there are number of great conservative institutions here with which I hope we can work. I look at the Goldwater Institute as one of the most successful state think tanks in the nation. Americans for Prosperity and Arizona Federation of Taxpayers do an excellent job on the fiscal issues confronting the state. I think Arizona’s PAChyderm holds great potential and has some wonderful members. The Center of Arizona Policy and Arizona Right to Life have done some fantastic work in helping defend unborn life. I hope we can work closely with them on those issues. And the Citizens Defense League has done a wonderful job protecting the Second Amendment rights in this state at a time when those rights are being eroded in many other states. We see value in all of these organizations, and I expect that we will find important areas of collaboration. And then there’s the entire Congressional delegation. I expect to meet with each member before Labor Day and hopefully sooner to express our policy priorities and forge collaborative working relationships.
SA: CCM was founded by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. What are your views on DeLay’s role as House Majority Leader and the charges brought against him?
Johns: I think he is a man who proved so effectual in his advancement of the conservative cause that he was subjected to incredible and possibly unprecedented scrutiny and ultimately a very politicized prosecution process. On the whole, he advanced the conservative agenda during his service in the House, and I know he loves this country deeply.
As for the charges against him, and these, I suppose, are my personal views, but I think Ronnie Earle is a partisan liberal and, by any sense of justice, Tom DeLay should not be facing charges. On the macro level, it exposes real flaws in the American legal system, where partisan prosecutors were permitted to go to six different grand juries in various jurisdictions until they obtained the indictment they sought. And they did all of this as partisans, knowing full well that House Republican rules would force DeLay to step down from his position with an indictment, and I think that was their end goal, and they achieved it. Earle shopped these charges around until he finally found a grand jury who agreed with him. That isn’t justice. That’s judicial abuse, and it ill-serves any decent sense of American justice. I believe the charges are going nowhere and the Majority Leader will be fully cleared. In fact, it’s my best sense that the charges will be dropped. I just ask myself why, in America, we can allow an abusive, partisan prosecutorial system to pursue such tactics. To be truly honest, it also troubles me that so many Republicans and conservatives ran for the tall grass when they should have been rallying behind him. All Americans should be outraged because, at the end of the day, no American is immune from such undemocratic witch hunts. I hope it points to the urgent need to curtail the boundless powers afforded prosecutors and run away grand juries.
SA: You recently had Ward Connerly here to speak on the Arizona Civil Rights Initiative. I assume that is a CCM priority? What issues do you see being most important to CCM?
Johns: Well, this is an exciting year for Arizona ballot initiatives. And I think that when you see so many conservative-focused ballot initiatives, it suggests what I said earlier that conservatism is energized. So, yes, the Arizona Civil Rights Initiative is a priority. I think it sets aside the rhetoric of a post-racial America and says: “Let’s make this a reality.” Whatever your historical views on affirmative action, I think we can say that, in 2008 and beyond, there is no logic in favoring one race or gender over another in governmental hiring or university admissions. And there is plenty of harm that is done by it.
I think the Civil Rights Initiative will get the signatures it needs by July 3 to get on this ballot, and we will make the case as to why it is sensible, constructive public policy for voters to adapt it this November. And I know we will face, and are facing, some opposition from small, radical elements like BAMN (Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, & Immigrant Rights And Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary). They represent the racial divides of the past, and I think the vast majority of Arizonans—and Americans—of all races want to move beyond it. And it’s not surprising to me to learn that the FBI has been assessing BAMN. It would be more surprising to me to learn that they did not have concern with an organization that seems so prone to violent and illegal acts in pursuit of its goals.
And the Civil Rights Initiative is not the only intriguing ballot initiative. We obviously need to do more to protect and expand quality health care coverage in this nation, so another ballot initiative here will do exactly that, affording Arizonans the right to choose their own coverage, including out-of-state coverage, if that is their choice. It is a constructive step forward. And in the immigration area, which I think is certainly among the top issues confronting the nation, there are two initiatives that we support fully. One will empower local law enforcement to enforce immigration laws, and a second will make trespassing laws apply to illegals. At this juncture, we really need to be showing our seriousness in enforcing this nation’s immigration laws, and I think there is a national and statewide consensus that is calling us and demanding us to do just this.
SA: Especially here in Arizona, don’t you think?
Johns: Absolutely. I see no reason that Arizona cannot lead this nation in its seriousness on the issue. After all, if we cannot protect this southern border and preclude without exception illegals from racing across it, I cannot see how we can say we are truly serious about homeland security. We have TSA agents searching 90-year-old grandmothers at Des Moines International Airport, but we permit just about any illegal to enter this country across the Rio Grande and our southern border? I think, at least I hope, that we can all agree that such a course is outrageous. It’s unacceptable, and it needs to change now.
That’s why I think President Bush made a very wise decision in properly moving USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) under the Department of Homeland Security. To be serious about homeland security, there is no option but to defend our borders. And I do not think anyone can look at this current approach and call it a serious one when we have 20 million or more illegals in this nation that we cannot account for and a porous border that anyone with a little determination can cross today. We have 500,000 or so illegals every year entering this nation, and this government cannot even answer with any certainty the very basic question of how many illegals are in this nation. That seems to me inexcusable and intolerable. There is a lot of anger around this nation about this government’s obvious unwillingness to protect its borders, even while it imposes greater burdens on our own people in the name of national security. It’s a deep and great anger, and I do not think Washington will be able to dodge responsibility on it much longer.
I also see other prices we are paying with this open border policy. We have sanctuary cities established and others emerging. We have burdens being placed on our hospitals, schools, and other public service systems. We have enhanced crime and traffic. And in an era of 5.5 percent and rising unemployment, we are offering jobs to illegals that might otherwise go to Americans. And I do not subscribe to the thesis that Americans do not want these jobs. Let’s give them the opportunity. If we have labor shortages, then, ok, let’s go do something like a labor equivalent to the H-1B or O-1 visa programs, and give foreigners an opportunity to come and have these jobs. But let’s make it an orderly process where immigrants are screened for criminal histories, communicable diseases, etc. And maybe preference should go to English-speaking applicants because I think we deserve the right to preserve this as an English-speaking nation. That cannot and will not happen if this current immigration policy, which is really a lack of a policy, continues unabated. To operate as if we have no control over the fabric and composition of this nation is dangerous and illogical. So we also will support these two ballot initiatives to empower law enforcement to enforce immigration laws in their work and to make the criminal trespass laws applicable to illegals.
SA: With your significant experience in health care management, what do you see as the conservative solution to our nation’s health care challenges?
Johns: I think I start with the premise that this conventional wisdom that liberals can solve our crisis through government is quite possibly the most dangerous policy assumption we’ve encountered in a long time. If you go back to the 4th Century B.C., you can find in Hippocrates’ writing the most sensible foundation of medicinal logic. He wrote something to the effect that: “I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness I will guard my life and my art.”
I find in that a strong endorsement for preventive medicine. We need to do more to promote exercise and nutrition as foundations for public health. We need to expand access to quality primary care physicians, and probably expand the number of primary care physicians themselves. I think you can also see in this Hippocrates statement the strong suggestion that it is unethical for physicians to be engaged in any process of aborting pregnancies or facilitating euthanasia. Is there not a more glaring example of big government run amok than when we permit other mortal men to intervene and end the process of innocent life? I’d like to see strong measures taken to embody the Hippocrates theme of “first do no harm” into public policy. To me, that means getting physicians out of the practice of ending life, whether it be embryonic life or end-stage life. There are over 40 million unborn children being aborted each year. That’s the sign of a crisis that cuts right to the center of our culture. A society that cannot protect the most vulnerable among us cannot be counted on to protect much else. It speaks to everything we are as a nation and a people.
Health care becomes complex because there are some incredibly positive things happening that we do not want to disrupt, and there are some other things that really cannot afford to stand. We want and need to encourage health care innovation. Anything that can be done to encourage private sector remedies to disease prevention or cures needs to be encouraged. Right now, the vast majority of heath care expenditures are incurred in the last several years of life, usually as a result of complex chronic disease. I think it is reasonable to think that we can expand the average duration of life while also minimizing our health care costs if we are able to enhance disease prevention and cures to heart disease, the various cancers and other ailments that kill millions. Government should provide incentives, and probably significant ones, to any companies or individual scientists who can contribute measurably to these ends. One of those best incentives might not be any direct financial award, but simply expanding some of the intellectual property rights on these life-saving therapies.
We also need a better functionality of market mechanisms in health care, and that means affording consumers greater choice so that both insurers and providers feel some pressure to compete. That rarely happens in a typical governmental health insurer like Medicaid, and it rarely happens in traditional private plans. So ultimately we are talking about revolutionary changes, including probably separating health insurance from a person’s respective employer and affording Americans the opportunity to purchase their own plans directly, as opposed to purchasing them indirectly through employers. Under such a system, Americans can behave more like traditional consumers, comparing the various pluses and minuses of various plans and choosing the sort of plans that meet their own expected health care needs. We can do all of this, while expanding coverage to the current 45 million or so Americans currently uncovered, and do it all in a way that better focuses health providers on health outcomes and takes the bureaucratic expense out of health insurance. But to move in the direction of some national solution that does not afford choice and is paid for and run by government would be to make a huge and possibly irreversible mistake that will not serve any goal and certainly will not enhance our overall goal of wellness. Sure, today’s preachers of universal health care tell us there will be no deterioration in the quality or cost of care. Didn’t they also tell us in the 1930s that Social Security income would never be taxable?
That’s why I look at this Arizona ballot initiative to expand consumer choice for Arizonans, and I see it as something that, if it passes, could set off a revolutionary tidal wave of choice-focused, state-based initiatives, and that would be a great step forward in enhancing the quality of American health care and Americans’ access to it.
SA: What is your view on how things stand right now in Arizona?
Johns: Here in Arizona, I truly believe that conservative ideas and policies will own the future, but there is work to be done. We need to complete building the bridge from here to there. We have a Governor, for instance, who preaches her advocacy for immigration reform. Yet, she has not offered even one single piece of comprehensive reform and has vetoed nearly every piece of immigration legislation that has reached her desk. That’s not an immigration reformer; that’s someone who has become part of the problem. And, understandably, there is mounting outrage over this lack of leadership.
It’s the same thing on fiscal reform. This is a state that wants low taxes. In a recessionary climate like this, we need tax relief. It’s part of the path out of this. But here and again, in our Gubernatorial leadership, there is no grasp of that fact and no apparent sense of urgency in stimulating growth. None. It just seems that some liberals cannot bring themselves to see the damage that they are inflicting with their tax and spend agendas or sacrifice their ideologies for the sake of people’s betterment. Right now, we urgently need to be enhancing liquidity and discretionary spending power, and here you have a Governor who just cannot seem to bring herself to utter the two words “tax relief,” except as some epithet. Meanwhile, unemployment has gone up for the first time since 1991. But there is absolutely no Gubernatorial leadership here either. Construction jobs are down 30,000 jobs or so since this time a year ago. Want to turn this around? We need tax relief right now.
The good news is that I know there are many members of the legislature here who understand the urgency for enhancing discretionary income through tax relief—people like Ron Gould, Jack Harper, Sam Crump, Russell Pearce, Judy Burgess, Rick Murphy, and many others. It really is my hope that they will win even more converts and that we can get the tax relief that is so desperately needed. I think a big part of the effort here is to ensure that the generally conservative views of Arizonans are reflected in the leadership of this state.
I feel better about the Congressional leadership. I first met Jeff Flake in Windhoek, Namibia in 1989 when he was serving as a Mormon missionary there. What a great job he has done in highlighting the Congressional abuses of the earmark system. I’d be hard pressed to name anyone so similarly effective in drawing attention to wasteful spending. I hope he will work closely with us on some other matters. In the Senate, of course, Jon Kyl has one of the best American Conservative Union rankings of any sitting Senator. As with Congressman Flake, it’s my hope he will see the urgency in addressing this illegal immigration crisis. I think they will. I intend to work closely with them. And I think conservatives have two great friends in Trent Franks and John Shadegg. I hope we can work closely with them, and I’m sure we will. And then there is sort of the rest of the delegation, and most of them cannot be called conservative or even moderate, but I hope that we can establish some working relationship on one or more issues.
SA: You have a lot of positive feelings about Arizona, though, it seems?
Johns: Like I said earlier, I think there is—and probably always has been—something unique in the political outlook of people here. They have views that closely resemble those of our founding fathers, and they seem as determined as any Americans I have encountered to involve themselves in defense of our liberty. I haven’t seen much like it, and I’ve lived in half a dozen states or so. Plus, there are a lot of people here I respect. I love radio, for instance, and only here, as far as I know, can you hear a great conservative radio show like J. D. Hayworth in the late afternoon on KFYI and have the luxury of three conservative talk radio stations in town from which to choose. Maybe even four, actually, because I’ve been an Alice Cooper fan forever—“I’m 18” is one of the best rock songs ever written—and I listen to him on KDKB and just get the sense he’s probably no liberal.
SA: What’s your opinion about the future of conservatism on a national level?
Most of what we know how to do well as conservatives we learned from Reagan, and I think Reagan’s ultimate predominant belief was that this movement and this nation have great days ahead of it. I feel that way. But to be honest, as I get around the nation and speak to groups or take calls on radio shows and what not, I sense a lot of anger among many Americans, including conservatives. It’s an intense anger, and it’s ok because I want to hear it and I want to understand it. But I think it’s also a deflected anger because conservatives feel frustrated that our message is not getting through. And I have to agree: Our message is not getting through. If it were, you would not see this nation so susceptible and seemingly open minded to this newly packaged set of old liberal ideas that is at the core of a national political campaign and most of modern liberalism. The greatness of this nation lies in its people, not its government, and I think we need a healthy reminder of government’s limitations and maybe an equally healthy reminder of our people’s potential to right our path outside of government.
And we need to keep a laser-like focus on victory in this war on terrorism. I hope it is not going to take the decimation of a major American city for us to wake up to the fact that retreat in the global war on terror is not an option. War fatigue is inevitable, especially in an open society, and President Bush correctly warned us following September 11 that this threat did not develop overnight and it will not be eradicated overnight. But it is being eradicated. Before it even started, liberals said the surge would fail. The surge has succeeded. Liberals said you cannot fight for peace. We have fought, we have made great progress, and—in so doing—we have kept this nation safe for nearly seven years. In a complex global war against an enemy with significant international military resources and a willingness to die to inflict pain on us in any place at any moment, that is not insignificant. If this President can leave office in January 2009 able to say that he defended this nation without exception in the post-9/11 world, then it’s difficult not to contend that this President succeeded in his most mammoth, Constitutionally-charged responsibility, and did it despite great odds.
But I look forward and see great threats to this nation. There is no foregone conclusion, no final chapter written, that ensures America’s survival. That challenge falls to us. Like a lot of conservatives, though, I draw a lot of inspiration from this moment in time, knowing that we carry a heavy weight of responsibility. It isn’t that people expect us to succeed. They take it for granted that we will. That may seem presumptuous, but we conservatives led the Cold War victory against a liberal movement here at home that preached accommodation, not victory. We conservatives have led vibrant economic policies that have created the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, and we did this despite those who sought to hamper us at every turn.
So some might see the conflict as one between ideologies, but I see it more as a conflict between our winning ideas and their opposition to our winning ideas. There is no liberal plan to win the war on global terror. There is no legitimate liberal plan for wealth creation. Their plan is merely to stop us. And that is not a winning plan. So I see conservatism as a rising star. I see us winning new hearts and minds every day. I see us bringing constructive policy solutions to all of these challenges—our peace and security, our economic growth and prosperity, our health and wellness, our energy challenge, our need to protect unborn life.
And we will do all of these things without leaving anyone behind because it’s only America’s greatness and wealth that ultimately can lift those who need to be lifted. Our government, when it doesn’t work, is an institution that stands between those Americans who help and those who need to be helped. Government’s value is transactional, ultimately. It is not a value added one. And in that fact, I think, lies the realization that the promises of liberalism are false ones, and my own assumption that Americans are smart enough to recognize that, with our nation on the line, it is our first responsibility to reject liberal falsehoods.
That leaves me with this optimism that we are about to usher in another American century of greatness, and it will be one rooted in the historical and modern reaffirmations of conservative policies and principles. And that isn’t meant to be disrespectful of liberals, most of whom I believe want the best for this nation. But the jury is in, and we know that it is conservative policies that marked an upward surge of this nation in decades gone by. Ultimately, I have no doubt, it is again conservative policies and principles, applied to our new set of challenges, that offer us the best opportunity to protect American greatness in this historic hour.