This past weekend a brouhaha developed across the nation over remarks Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) made in 2008 about then-candidate Barack Obama, as reported in the book “Game Change” by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Putting aside whether his vocabulary was appropriate for a senator, in private or public, there is an interesting case being made in his defense. It essentially goes like this: Harry Reid’s rhetoric is excusable because of his voting record. As Harold Ford said on the Today program on Monday: “If his voting record raised concerns, I think there would be issues.” President Obama said Reid is always on the “right side of history.”

Here’s the paradigm that we’re living in: Liberals are portrayed as social justice champions of poor and minority Americans. Conservatives are pictured as indifferent or even opposed to measures that would improve the welfare of the poor and minorities. The return of this line of reasoning is the most disturbing consequence of this week’s political dust-up. There’s no better time to ask whether any of this is even true.

The first question is whether liberals have a right to that high ground. Specifically, have liberal policies of the past four decades put minority groups on a path to social justice? The second question is whether conservatives have a track record of indifference. The answer simply is no to both. At the very least, one can say of the two camps that their intent to uplift the downtrodden are the same. So let’s all use this week’s events to start over on a level playing field and evaluate the policy merits of each.

Liberal social justice policy has largely come down to money. By endlessly voting to widen the welfare state and redistribute income from the top, liberals claim to be defenders of the poor. By contrast, conservatives see flaws in the liberal approach and have consistently yearned for policies lead to less dependency, and empower those in need with opportunities for economic and personal growth.

So which side has a better record of overcoming poverty and social breakdown?

Today, seven out of ten black children in the United States are born into a single parent family. Single parents are often the most heroic caregivers we know, but that should drive us to ask what leads to the disintegration of the American family in the first place. The growth in unwed childbearing in recent decades stems in part from liberal welfare policies that pushed fathers out of the picture. The conservative answer is to support policies that affirm, rather than undermine the family–the best welfare department. Government policies should promote marriage, not penalize it.

That was part of the logic behind the dramatic success of welfare reform, advanced by conservatives because liberals’ welfare programs were hurting the very people they were intended to help. The 1996 policy reform created incentives to work and discouraged unwed childbearing. Millions of Americans escaped welfare and achieved independence as a result. Welfare rolls were cut in half. Black child poverty fell to its lowest level in United States history.

Take education as a second example. Just this past year, the liberally dominated Congress voted to end school-choice opportunity scholarships for hundreds of Washington, DC youth. Why? Because liberal teachers unions oppose anything that threatens their stream of government income and job security. Instead of these kids being able to compete academically with peers across the nation, they are forced into dangerous schools that offer them little chance of a quality and equitable education. This is the civil rights issue of our time, and liberals are mostly silent on it. By contrast, conservatives want to expand opportunity for children to learn in new environments so they can rise up, become educated, and compete in schools and on the job market.

Like liberals, conservatives want disadvantaged children to succeed, but their policy solutions are different. They also have a much different track record.

We have had entire cities devoted as laboratories to the liberal experiment for decades. Detroit is certainly one. Driving down the streets of Detroit, you’ll find public housing that is only a decade or two old, and yet it’s been abandoned and destroyed. In Detroit, you’ll find incredibly high crime rates, poor schools, below-average civic infrastructure, a collapsed economy, seedy corruption and few jobs. And it’s a story of liberal policy failures that is repeated across the country.

None of this is to say that Republicans and conservatives are not also partially to blame for this narrative. When challenged, they back down. They cede the ground and allow liberals to dictate the parameters of debate. Conservatives cannot expect to earn the trust of citizens of all colors, races, and creeds if we’re not willing to discuss the issues and to identify the failures of the liberal agenda.

Conservatives have a better argument: Policies that recognize human dignity and are built on sound, effective principles will benefit Americans of all backgrounds, races and religions. Conservative ideals will build that America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity and civil society flourish. It is high time that conservatives began reclaiming the ground of social justice.

While towing the liberal line in Congress may earn you a stellar voting record with leftist special interest groups, it does not put you on a more favorable side of history.  And it certainly doesn’t entitle you to a double standard on racially insensitive language.

For more ideas and discussion on social justice in America, visit The Heritage Foundation’s website