In the spring of 2004, I attended an event for donors to the HRCC (for the uninitiated, that is the House Republican Campaign Committee) as one of the beneficiaries of the assemblage’s largesse. The room was peppered with candidates from so-called “targeted” races – challengers in seats thought to be potentially competitive – but the event was really headlined by former Speaker Gingrich.
As a college Republican in a liberal poli sci department in the mid 90s, it was natural that Newt became a hero of mine; after all, Democratic control of the house was almost regarded as a given from my birth through my 22nd birthday. When the GOP took the house for the first time since my mom had been in High School, it was a seminal moment for many a young Republican – and that sea change occurred because of Newt.
So when I was sitting in a room as the Republican nominee for Pennsylvania’s 17th congressional district 10 years later, I was in awe. Newt was and is an “idea guy” – one who loves to think through problems past and present to formulate a better answer, a cleaner fix, or a more consistent policy. In my immodesty, I think of myself the same way.
But he is also a consummate politician, and his talk that day was pure politics for the faithful. It also sheds considerable light on his early stumbles.
Newt started his talk with this question: who wouldn’t take 70% of the vote in any election? Obviously, for a room full of donors and long shot challengers (2 of 16 of us would prevail), the answer was an unsurprising no one. So why, he asks, do we not advance any or all of the 29 issues he identified as 70% issues with the American people, issues that the GOP already supported?
If this sounds familiar, it should; in 1994 Newt engineered the new era of volatile house control by nationalizing local elections with the Contract with America. Revolutionary at the time, the contract was nothing more than a promise to give the people those things polling unequivocally demonstrated they already wanted.
In 2004, Newt’s message was the same; 70% are opposed to gay marriage? Highlight your opponent’s support or announce your opposition. 70% want lower taxes? Great, so do you – sell it. 70% want drilling in ANWR? Where do we sign? The GOP of 2004 was the party of majority positions and majority power, and Newt suggested we act like it.
The 70% issues ran the full spread of GOP positions, from sea to shining sea, and had some real gems. It was and is an effective way to win political fights – taking sides with a pronounced majority usually is such a method.
But it ignored the real problems that true leadership demands be addressed. Put another way, it is the issues on which we are so divided that we need the greatest strength in our leaders. We need leaders who are willing to see both sides and forge a middle ground – and 70% issue candidates may not be up to such a task.
Consider the man Newt now wishes to replace; President Obama ran on issues that were overwhelmingly popular with the independent voters he needed to win, issues like getting out of Iraq and getting the economy back on track. He offered little in the way of policy to achieve those (still unattained) goals, but he spoke to them beautifully. These were 70% issues, and ones that delivered the White House to Obama – unfortunately it did not deliver the means to lead on those 40-40-20 issues that really matter most.
Entitlement reform is just such an issue. Yes, it is a 70% issue to oppose changing Medicare, as Newt’s opposition to the Ryan Roadmap demonstrates. Newt has a list somewhere of 70% issues he thinks he can win with, and entitlement reform is not one of them. Opposing it is 70% — and who wouldn’t want 70% of the vote?
But that is not the answer we need. I understand that the core problem – entitlements and their uncontrollable march to default not 12 years from now – is exactly the type of issue a man seeking the White House would avoid, duck, and pillory at any opportunity for the exact reason that doing so is politically expedient.
But that begs the question – do we really need to replace one form of political expediency for another? Or should we look for true leadership – leaders willing to risk losing the battle to eventually win the war?
In my mind we have had our fill of political expediency. We need political leadership and the electorate is restless – something that election results demonstrate plainly. The debt crisis, the deficit spending, and the lousy economy has the middle paying attention; now is the time to lead them out of the fear of change into the benefit – and necessity – of reform.
And as much as I will always respect the Speaker, his 70% platform just isn’t leadership. After all, if we elect a leader who only does what we already want, is he truly a leader?
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