I had the privilege of speaking with Congressman Mike Pence this morning. As I told him on the phone, I was excited to talk to a staunch conservative from Central Indiana having gone to high school and college there myself. He was just as eloquent an advocate for conservative ideas and principles as I expected him to be.
I decided that what I wanted to focus on for the short time I had was his conception of how the GOP would connect with voters as a minority party and thus begin the foundation for retaking the majority. So my questions were less about detailed policy and more about big picture policy; plus strategy and communication.
The first question I had was how does he - and the GOP in general - keep from getting focused on what you might call "inside-baseball" (the daily minutia and parliamentarian maneuvers of Congress) and get his message to the average voter.
The Congressman explained that he does that by staying in close touch with the people he represents. He does this through town hall meetings, regular radio interviews, etc. And he argued that this is the most effective way to build up what he called "anti-bodies to Potomac Fever." Potomac fever defined as thinking like Washington and worrying about what Washington thinks.
The Congressman thinks the GOP is winning the argument over the budget in many ways because the issues they are raising resonate with what Americans thinks about running huge deficits and trying to spend our way out of this crisis.
I asked whether the GOP should roll out detailed and complete alternative proposals on the budget and health care or simply oppose the bad policies the Democrats are trying to push through.
He stated that the first job of the opposition is simply to oppose when conscience demands. And they plan to use every tool at their disposal to expose, and oppose, the dangerous big government policies of President Obama and Congressional Democrats.
But they also plan to put forward detailed alternatives like they recently did with the budget. These are needed to show that the GOP is still the party of ideas; of limited government, personal responsibility, a strong defense, etc.
He acknowledged that they had to have a willingness to fight but argued that you also have to have a vision for where you want to lead the country.
I then returned to the issue of communication. I offered that many felt that President Bush, and Republicans in general, have often failed to communicate - or were perceived to have communication failures. I wondered what he thought needed to be done to insure their ideas and principles were heard and understood.
His response was that the GOP "Didn't have a marketing problem we had a principle problem!" We didn't fail to communicate about No Child Left Behind or about the budget or other programs it was that those were bad policies. He argued that the GOP needs to get back to what in Indiana they call "dancing with what brung ya" - get back to your principles first then worry about communicating.
He acknowledged that communication was obviously important and that they were working hard at learning and improving. He felt they were in fact getting better. He noted the unprecedented bicameral coordination with communication in the last few months. Both House and Senate were focused on sending the message that the president's budget "Spends too much, taxes too much, and borrows too much." This phrase has served as a unifying message that both houses could focus on.
He noted that House and Senate traditionally talk about things differently, and this has often watered down the message, but now they are working together to help get the message to the American people. Today they are having the first joint House and Senate GOP conference since as far back as 1996 which is a manifestation of the emphasis on coordination to reflect the same ideas and themes.
I asked if he felt the GOP would have a chance to propose some reforms of their own instead of just opposing the Ds. He thought they would have that chance. He noted, for example, that he will be part of a group working on energy policy to build off of the progress they made last session in offering viable "all of the above" type energy solutions that strengthen and grow the economy.
I asked whether he thought that the Democrats were in a classic way over-reaching and that the GOP simply needed to be ready when Americans were ready to listen to their alternatives. He argued that this wasn't really over-reach but simply the liberal policies the Democrats always offer. He thinks President Obama is personally popular - has a great family, carries himself with sense of dignity, etc. - but his policies are deeply concerning to most Americans.
He noted that when they rolled out their alternative budget many gripped that it was just the same "tired and old" ideas but he thinks they are "tried and true" policies based on traditional values. He feels that many Americans voted for Obama and Blue Dog Democrats thinking that they wouldn't do what they said. He, however, took them at their word that they were going to raise taxes and increase government, etc. At some point the voters are going to understand this.
As he outlined his staunch belief in classic conservative principles (limited government, low taxes, light regulation, strong defense, etc.) I asked if we need new ways to explain how limited government helps the average voter; how these ideas effect them in their daily lives.
He admitted that some of the terms or phrases - like limited government - may be of limited value. But he argued that policies like low taxes and reasonable regulations are what allow people to pursue the American dream of starting a business, buying a house, leaving their children better off than they were, etc. He thinks that voters in their guts understand that as government expands freedom shrinks. The GOP has to work harder and do a better job of connecting with voters and reminding them of this truth.
To wrap up our conversation he told a story. He said that he got debit cards for his kids as a way to help them learn to spend and manage their money. He then recalled a summer day when he stopped at a local CVS to buy a Coke. He realized that he didn't have any cash and so he asked his 10 year-old daughter for her debit card to buy the Cokes. When he got home he told his wife about it because he felt guilty about taking money from his child.
He said that is what we are doing today. We are stealing the money from our children because we won't make the tough decisions today. And there is thus a moral issue to this debate.
He made the case that what the GOP need to do is get back in the practice of living out our ideals; of showing our commitment to those ideals. If we are credible advocates of those ideals then we can begin to communicate with the voters and regain their trust.
I have to say that while there may be disagreements about tactics and strategy going forward (and about the details of various policy proposals), I think Rep. Pence is on target about the foundation for Republican success in seeking to return to the majority.