Political labels can be misleading, even when they are accurate.

In my 30-plus years in politics, as a state legislator, a Reagan appointee in the U.S. Education Department and then as a five-term congressman, I have earned the reputation as a “firebrand,” a radical conservative, a man who loves to “stir things up.”

Life is full of paradox, especially political life. My political “radicalism” has been forced on me by the politics of our age, an age dominated by liberal orthodoxies that must be challenged, not accommodated. When political conservatives accommodate to the prevailing orthodoxies of big government, which sees every human problem and affliction as requiring a government solution, they become part of the problem, not part of the solution.

My deepest political passion is a very conservative one – to preserve and protect our Constitution. But I discovered early in my career that preserving the Constitution means doing battle with the entrenched ideologies that are undermining the Constitution and eroding our constitutional liberties.

This is the confusing paradox of our time – that citizens who seek to conserve liberty have necessarily become political radicals, while the enemies of constitutional liberty, who fashion themselves as “progressives,” have become conservators of Government on Autopilot.

The root problem we face as concerned citizens is that a government on autopilot is a government destined for bankruptcy and catastrophe. We need to find the “off switch” and retake control of government. Being called an alarmist comes with the territory: We have much to be alarmed about.

There is a place for compromise in lawmaking, and in fact, compromise is an indispensable part of the political process as it is in all human endeavors. But there is a difference between a compromise over what the entrée choices will be for tomorrow’s lunch and a compromise over what kind of poison you will serve your grandchildren for dinner. Progressivism is a slow poison rotting out our Constitution, and we need to reject it in its entirety, not accommodate it. The Republican Party has been too accommodating progressivism for the past 100 years, and the result has been a party widely perceived as just another group of power-brokers, another team of politicians content with government on autopilot.

As a principled conservative, I am not interested in negotiating with progressives how fast or how slow we will move down the road toward bankruptcy and catastrophe. I do not want to work out a compromise about how much bigger our government will be next year over this year. I want it to start becoming smaller, not bigger. This means changing directions, and that means “stirring the pot” and asking government to go on a diet.

Now, we know that radical diets that try to lose a lot of weight too quickly are unhealthy and impossible to sustain. We need a realistic diet for government that forces bureaucracy to do more with less and is sustainable over a long period.

The government diet we traditionally rely on is called fiscal discipline. We all understand the need for discipline in our household budgets, but somehow politicians have a hard time following the principle in the public sphere. The federal government has no fiscal discipline whatsoever, and state governments have found creative ways to circumvent it through innovative borrowing practices.

California is now reaping the consequences of two decades of perennial deficits hidden by stealth borrowing, and many other states are not far behind. When the extent of unhealthy obesity reaches a certain stage, fiscal discipline alone is not enough to restore fiscal health. Sometimes, the only cure for fiscal obesity is surgery. And yes, sometimes, radical surgery.

So, I do not shy from unconventional actions or quibble over the labels when radically sensible measures are clearly needed to change directions and turn off the government’s autopilot.  When your house is on fire, do you want a fireman with a powerful hose or Uncle John with plan to convene a panel to study the problem?

The principles a politician espouses, the priorities he pledges to implement and the integrity he brings to the task – those are the standards by which voters should select leaders. A party label is a useful guide, but not an infallible one, as we learned all too painfully as Republicans in Congress enacted new entitlements and countless earmarks in the fruitless quest for a “permanent majority.” Citizens should look hard at a candidate’s program, his record, his principles and his integrity. If he seems to be an “alarmist,” maybe he is taking the challenge more seriously than others. And probably, in 2010 especially, that is a good thing.

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