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FEULNER: The promise and pitfalls of 2011

Without caution, conservatives will lose momentum in the new year

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It's an exciting time for conservatives. It's also a dangerous one. On the one hand, we have opportunities aplenty now, thanks in large part to liberal overreach. An overzealous majority in Congress, revved up by their 2009 Christmas Eve health care victory in the House of Representatives, opened 2010 with a far-left agenda far removed from the will of the American people.

They can't say we didn't warn them. Conservatives said repeatedly that voters weren't going to stand for more spending, more regulation, more control from "on high." As I wrote in a column last January, "Our leaders would do well to listen to the wisdom of the people, before they learn it first hand in November."

They didn't listen. So they learned.

So why is 2011 a dangerous time for conservatives? Two reasons:

First, there is much to do - and little margin for error. Obamacare is now the law of the land, and we have a new START treaty. New START will hamper U.S. efforts to field a missile defense. Obamacare will make health care less affordable. So we're starting from a hole.

Second, it's easy to lose sight of what's truly at stake. It's more than a fight over one particular piece of legislation. It's not just about health care, harmful treaties, tax hikes or defense cuts - as important as these are. It's about America's first principles. It's about the fundamental relationship between citizens and their government.

For example, are we a nation where government can order people to buy health coverage? Set aside for a moment any discussion about whether such coverage is wise. The question is, does the Constitution allow government to force you to buy it? Critical debates such as this have motivated thousands of Americans to get involved in the public debate.

Consider what we as a nation have seen unfold over the past 12 months. Across the country, people who had never before been engaged in politics have sprung to action. They've written letters, made phone calls and attended town-hall meetings. Whatever the forum, they've called for fiscal sanity, individual responsibility and limited government - all constitutional principles. And it's working.

Liberals can try all they want to place us on a "road to serfdom," to use F.A. Hayek's famous phrase. The fact is, conservatives are winning where it matters most - and not just at the ballot box. We are winning the war of ideas. And liberals are taking notice.

In recent months, the Obama administration has begun to take ideas directly from the conservative playbook:

1. In national security, they've canceled civilian trials for terrorists, kept Guantanamo Bay open and extended key provisions of the USA Patriot Act.

2. On federal spending, they've proposed a federal pay freeze as a first step toward fiscal sanity.

3. On immigration, they've abandoned their pursuit of comprehensive immigration reform.

4. On economic recovery, they've admitted that the Obama tax hikes are wrong for America.

Much, however, remains to be done.

My hope is that the new Congress will follow through on this momentum and fulfill the conservative mandate delivered in November. Standing firmly on principles, conservatives can push to repeal Obamacare, rein in government spending and regulations and stop all tax hikes.

They can, in short, listen to the wisdom of the people.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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