When conservative donors to Mitt Romney’s campaign heard the infamous “47 percent” remark and Romney’s response in the following days, they must have shaken their heads in dismay. How could such an intelligent man and successful capitalist prove so inept in addressing the entitlement state?

Romney’s statement mentioned people who “are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them,” but pared the whole issue down to election numbers—in essence, “they get too much from the government to vote for a limited-government guy like me.” He lacked language to convert the entitlement condition into other terms, into moral, philosophical, or psychological matters that would appear less self-serving and frame the 47 percent bloc in greater depth.

The wise course was to shift the issue away from the 47 percent’s relation to him and toward its relation to the government, away from what would happen on Election Day and toward what happens every day to a nation and to individuals when entitlement commitments reach current levels. Romney tried to do this but his original remarks pegged him too firmly as a poll-taker, and more importantly, he didn’t seem to have the resources to speak broadly, to raise entitlement questions to the level of character and American civics.

The frustrating thing about it all was that the American tradition offers abundant authorities to the conservative view, figures and writings central to our heritage and opposed to entitlement excesses. Not the standard invocation of the U.S. Constitution, but great expressions in the cultural sphere—Ben Franklin on the virtue of thrift, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famed essay “Self-Reliance,” Thoreau at Walden bucking the tax collector, Booker T. Washington on the hazards of dependency, Willa Cather’s heroine Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers!, a model of delayed gratification and entrepreneurship, and many more. They present the contrary to entitlement in resounding words and powerful images, and they continue to bear American prestige (if only because audiences recall them from high school English and social studies classes).

As others berated Romney and declared the need for entitlements in an unfair economy, he could have cited Washington at the end of Up from Slavery: “The great human law that in the end recognizes and rewards merit is everlasting and universal.” This wouldn’t deny misfortune, but it would uphold a fundamental and optimistic belief, one whose disappearance spells the triumph of cynicism.

While others detailed the miserable conditions of life that some entitlement recipients endure, Romney might have underscored the lifestyle habits that Franklin espoused as the way to avoid those conditions (“Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality . . .”). It would have turned the debate to ideals of American citizenship, not to the candidate himself; or, at least, it would have shifted his remarks to a related and better lineage of revered forebears.

That didn’t happen and the “47 percent” stuck to Romney like a humiliating nickname, leading him to admit to Chris Wallace of Fox News in a post-inauguration interview, “there’s no question that it hurt, and did real damage to my campaign.”

Donors who poured dollars into the effort no doubt seethed as the gaffe was not explained, revised, disarmed. Before they move on to midterm elections, they should absorb the episode as a lesson in leadership.

The lesson is this: Conservative candidates must possess, among other attributes, a conservative tradition in their heads, not just political principles, but great thinkers and artists of them, too. The post-47-percent outcry should convince them that a ready repository of cultural touchstones is not an unrealistic expectation in campaign settings—it’s a necessity.

Yes, it’s hard to imagine a candidate drowning in briefings, events, contacts, fundraising, meetings, and interviews recalling Edmund Burke’s warnings about radical change, Hawthorne’s exposé of federal employment, and Whittaker Chambers on the religiosity of left-wing ideology, but it’s happened before.

Two days before announcing his presidential candidacy in 1976, Ronald Reagan addressed a group of approving conservatives at a banquet in the Plaza Hotel, a gala occasion like Romney’s. Reagan was equally feisty, but instead of narrowing the point to a vote tally, he expanded it with an extraordinary tutorial: He recited from memory a long, grave paragraph by Chambers on the dark future of Western civilization. (George Will in Newsweek and William F. Buckley in National Review both commented on the choice of text.)

Note carefully the form of delivery. Reagan didn’t abstract ideas from Chambers and outline them as his own, and he didn’t change them to fit 1970s circumstances. He kept Chambers’s words and credited everything to him, remembering the great anti-communist and eloquent autobiographer himself in the course of rendering his words. Note, too, that the passage he chose was not a political one, but a prophetic one, a cultural outlook. His campaign, Reagan implied, would involve a political platform applied to present conditions, to be sure, but one rooted in a historical vision derived from noble precursors.

Given Reagan’s success, it’s odd that many advisors and commentators under-appreciate the authority of conservative ancestors. A few weeks ago in National Review, reflecting on the 2012 loss, David Winston counseled the Republican Party to reinsert ideas at the center of future campaigns.

An advisor to House and Senate Republicans, Winston opens his article with a pertinent citation, Margaret Thatcher’s “First you win the argument, then you win the vote.” He rightly criticizes campaign consultants for emphasizing “messaging” too much and putting “little stock in ideas.”

But Winston’s version of ideas doesn’t penetrate much further. He notes that Republicans possess “the right ingredients—solid principles and innovative ideas,” but he doesn’t explain them or trace their sources. Instead, he resorts to marketing talk: “What we didn’t do in 2012 was meld those ingredients into a product people wanted to buy.” He terms the party’s failures “a branding problem” and refers to voters as “customers,” and he never mentions Hayek, Friedman, James Q. Wilson, Russell Kirk, or any name in the table of contents of The Conservative Mind.

He follows the natural inclination to look forward, to be practical, but fails to recognize that a campaign of ideas needs an honorable past to support it. An old conservative axiom disappears: unmoored from tradition’s best guides, individuals make errant judgments and say imprudent things (such as calling citizens “customers,” a label that will estrange voters, not collect them).

The example of Reagan shows the practical advantage that background knowledge of history, philosophy, literature, and art provides. A candidate without it doesn’t meet the discursive requirements of the campaign, many of which can’t be controlled and scripted. If a candidate doesn’t have those materials deep inside, it’s too late to absorb and refine them on the campaign trail.

We saw numerous demonstrations in 2012, prompting Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens to plead a week after the election, “Can we, as the GOP base, demand an IQ exam as well as a test of basic knowledge from our congressional and presidential candidates?” Liberal journalists and hosts, needless to say, reveled in applying the anti-intellectual tag to Republican figures, and the targets all-too-handily confirmed it, for instance, Herman Cain’s nifty jingle, “We need a leader, not a reader.”

Liberal commentators couldn’t have done so if candidates had cited Tocqueville on civic associations when discussing Obamacare, or mentioned Hayek on the perils of central planning, or recalled any thinker that might confer intellectual heft upon the speaker. Some evidence of homework was needed, not a quick briefing by a staffer relative to a pressing issue, but extensive study in years past more or less disengaged from immediate concerns.

If conservative donors wish to assist candidates in this area of intellectual seasoning, however, the case of Reagan is no model to follow. His experience cannot be repeated. Remember that Reagan engaged in two of the most heated ideological debates of the twentieth century in the United States, with communists in Hollywood in the late 1940s and leftists on University of California campuses in the late 1960s, both of which forced him to engage adversaries in direct confrontations.

He did so in public speeches and private skirmishes, but realizing that ideological warfare turned on facts, knowledge, and rhetoric as much as on power and tactics, he devoted long hours to reading alone and memorizing noteworthy passages. No rising candidates today will pass through a similar gauntlet—how many of them have sat down at a table with the opposition and genuinely debated first premises and core principles?—and the culture circa 2013 lacks the Big Concepts focus of the Cold War situation in the 1950s and 60s. Young politicians don’t breathe an air of ideas at war and they shy away from culture controversies. How many of them, too, will take the time when they are 40 years old to plow through The Road to Serfdom and Dickens’s Hard Times?

The best way, perhaps the only consistent one, to plant conservative writings and art in the formation of politicians is through the high school and college curriculum. There, individuals have the space to absorb them as common intellectual equipment, as regular facets of the world, not as political positions. Combined with the home environment in previous years, the curriculum they study from ages 14 to 23 largely settles the conceptual framework they shall carry for the rest of their lives.

What they encounter and how it is presented determine what they think is important. If English and history courses don’t include Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 (an anti-political correctness novel) alongside multiculturalist fiction of the 2000s, if they don’t add David Horowitz’s Radical Son to celebrations of the 1960s counterculture, if James Madison doesn’t precede Malcolm X, then the conservative tradition has no place in the accepted body of cultural literacy. If The Scarlet Letter is taught as an indictment of sexual oppression in a Puritan community, not as a complicated tale in which the community has a valid claim upon Hester’s desires, then social conservatism is reinforced as an uptight, obsolete imposition.

This is to recognize the curriculum as an authorizing process. What makes it onto the syllabus has legitimacy, and the angle the teacher takes upon the materials tends to stick. If conservative donors wish to back winning candidates, to cultivate politicians who can deflect sallies of biased reporters and liberal counterparts with intelligent and informed convictions, they must reach conservative politicians not only in election years, but at impressionable ages, too.

At the present time, liberal outlooks dominate the curriculum; the Canon Wars of the 1980s and early ’90s (“Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!”) marked the final victory of a conflict that started twenty years earlier. The story of the takeover of cultural institutions by the Left from 1969 forward has been recited many times, and the curriculum was one of its most prized aims and enduring triumphs. Shouldn’t conservative donors realize what the Left realized, namely, the power of the classroom and the reading list? Thatcher’s dictum, “First you win the argument, then you win the vote,” has its complement: “First you win the schools, then you win the government.”

Many conservative foundations and individuals do contribute to initiatives on campus, including our own at Emory University, the Voluntary Core Program, but at the risk of sounding like the head of a government program, we must ask for more money and call for a new organization to broaden and coordinate the effort.

At this time, numerous centers that highlight conservative materials while respecting liberal traditions have sprung up around the country, including ones at Princeton, Brown, UCLA, Texas Tech, University of Nebraska-Omaha, CUNY, Christopher Newport University, University of Virginia, George Mason University, University of Colorado, Monterey Peninsula College, and University of Texas, along with groups involved in programming and funding such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Fund for American Studies, the Jack Miller Center, the Liberty Fund, the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, and the Association for Core Texts and Contexts.

Generally, they advocate a curriculum that represents the best conservative and liberal expressions and opinions, past and present, the word “traditionalist” serving, perhaps, as a better label than “conservative.” Indeed, a conservative pedagogy strives for non-partisan, many-sided readings and coursework, incorporating Marx and Dewey and the Beats along with Burke and Hayek and T. S. Eliot. Hence the focus at these centers not simply on conservatism, but also on the American Founding (Paine as well as Hamilton), Great Books (atheistic and Christian), liberty and free institutions, classical liberalism, and libertarianism. They operate largely independently of one another, however, doing gallant work and exposing students to the best that has been thought and said by people across the ideological spectrum, but not amounting to a movement like the founding and mobilization of conservative organizations and periodicals in the mid-twentieth century.

Conservative donors can play a crucial role in uniting them. Ford Foundation provides a handy example; it fostered women’s studies programs across the country in the 1970s and 80s, when the field rose from virtual nonexistence to more than 600 established centers and departments. Heather Mac Donald reported in 1996 that, from 1972 to 1992, women’s studies received $36 million in support from Ford, Carnegie, and other liberal funders. The same explosion happened with Black Studies and Ethnic Studies, and it should happen once more.

It is time for conservative/liberal/traditionalist centers to go national, to reach not just a few thousand students a year, but a few hundred thousand. That means supporting the existing twenty-plus programs and creating dozens more every year.

One model might be an umbrella organization that holds an annual conference and issues white papers, and so on, but most importantly, develops curricular packages that can be implemented at colleges and universities at no cost. This would require an organizational leadership that has enough scholarly credibility and nonpartisan identity to form welcome relationships with administrators and faculty members. The first step is for one of the leading centers today to host a summit to initiate strategic plans for such a national effort that merges the diverse initiatives in higher education into, precisely, a movement.