It Begins with Ideas

LOUIS M. ZICKAR

One of my first jobs in Washington was working as the press secretary to former Congressman Bob Walker of Pennsylvania. In addition to being a great boss, Bob was also a member of the Conservative Opportunity Society. 

One of my responsibilities was to attend the group’s weekly meetings. The year was 1989. I vividly recall sitting along the wall of the cramped Cannon conference room where they met, watching Bob, Newt Gingrich, Duncan Hunter and the other members of C.O.S. talk strategy and policy over doughnuts and coffee.  

Two things stand out from those meetings. The first was how often the group talked about recapturing the majority in Congress. The second thing that stood out was how much the group talked about ideas. Passing a Balanced Budget Amendment. Cutting the capital gains tax. Reforming welfare. The ideas that formed the basis of the Contract with America were hashed out right there in that room. 

Nearly five years later, I went to work for the National Policy Forum. NPF was a think tank that Haley Barbour established when he became Chairman of the RNC. Between November 1993 and June 1994, the organization conducted a “Listening to America” tour. It held 70 public meetings in communities across the country. The meetings featured Republicans from all levels of government and focused on many of the same issues the members of C.O.S. would talk about on Capitol Hill. According to Barbour, the objective of the tour was not just to promote the GOP. It was also to promote ideas. 

I bring all of this up now because one of the debates underway in Washington these days has to do with why Republicans lost their majority this past November. Some believe it is because the Republican Party ran out of ideas. Others believe it is because Republicans ran away from the ideas that made the Party great. 

I tend to think it is the latter and not the former.

Indeed, the core principles that helped Republicans win the majority 12 years ago – principles such as lower taxes, free markets, limited government, and a strong defense – remain vital and salient notions today. Moreover, they are notions that, historically at least, Republicans have successfully branded as their own. 

Unfortunately, as the mid-terms revealed, the Republican brand in this regard has been severely compromised. Nowhere is this truer than in the area of spending and ethics. Enough has been written about Republican failures in these areas to warrant no further explanation in this space. But for those of us who worked in the minority during the late 1980s, there was a sense that the Republican majority of the past few years had, in these two areas especially, become no better than the Democratic majority we had worked so hard to defeat. To say it was disappointing is an understatement. 

Republicans now face an uphill battle. In waging this battle, they should look at what has worked in the past. Specifically, the Party should begin talking again about the ideas that helped them win control of Congress in the first place. The example Haley Barbour set at the National Policy Forum might be a good place to start; get the Party outside the beltway and go directly to the American people. Fortunately, Republicans have a wealth of talent to help achieve this goal. Over the next year and a half, the GOP should showcase this talent by conducting a new “Listening to America” tour. 

Have Senator Judd Gregg and Congressman Paul Ryan lead a team on balancing the budget and Senator Chuck Hagel and Congresswoman Kay Granger take the lead on national defense. Recruit Governors like Missouri’s Matt Blunt, Hawaii’s Linda Lingle, Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty and, of course, Governor Barbour of Mississippi to talk about how they are meeting the challenges in their own home states. Send them into communities where polling indicates they will do the most good. Follow-up their appearances with ads paid for by the RNC that reinforce the messages being delivered. 

Make no mistake – the results of this past election were not an aberration. They were caused by an abdication of ideas. The key thing now is to begin a new dialogue with the American people – a dialogue based on ideas, and one that will help restore the public trust in the GOP. 

Only then will Republicans be in a position to recapture what it took four decades to win and just over one decade to lose.

                                                                                      RF

Louis M. Zickar is the Editor of the Ripon Forum.

 

   
 


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