Republican leaders need to come out of the wilderness

Right after the 2002 election I asked an old political veteran of the 1976 Reagan campaign what his opinion was about the prospects for Republicans in Illinois going forward. He said get ready for at least ten years in the wilderness. At the time that seemed too pessimistic, now it looks right on target.

Governing Illinois is small potatoes compared to the nation, but seeking to enact change here will be as difficult relative to size as anything faced in D.C. Being on the side of the status quo and increasing funding to the existing mess is the role of the Democratic Party. Republicans must be the party of reform or they have no reason to exist.

We hear a lot of complaints from our elected Republicans about how the Democrats are governing here in Illinois. Unfortunately, it seems they spend so much time talking about how bad things are they don’t have any energy left to draft and sell an alternative plan.

It’s tough to be a reformer without a reform plan. And it’s also very tough when our legislators approach their jobs as if it were thirty or more years ago. Thirty years ago there weren’t so many well-organized and well-funded interest groups promoting the wrong policies – all of which involve growing government and increasing taxes.

Let’s be frank, most of our GOP legislators in Springfield have no idea what they’re up against or what they should do about it. Sure, that’s harsh, but how else could we have so many smart, talented people in office and still be losing ground when it comes to advancing solutions based on Republican principles?

As noted on these pages previously, the General Assembly Republican delegation’s tenure adds up to over seven centuries of experience. And what is that producing? Few busy, hardworking Illinois voters have any idea what would be different if Republicans were in charge of Illinois government.

To cite just one enormous example, no one in Illinois right now has any idea how Republicans propose to address the fiscal crisis we face. There are at least a half-dozen other big issues where Republicans are a blank slate.

When is the last time you’ve read of an Illinois legislative district “trending” Republican? Instead, we see formerly secure Republican districts in play and possible pick-ups for Democrats. This happens as a result of the vacuum created by legislators failing to make proper use of the offices currently in their custody – both individually and as a group.

A telling quote a few years ago came from an advisor to former Senate President James “Pate” Philip during the 2002 remapping process. To paraphrase, he said that there were no longer any Republican “strongholds” left in Illinois.

What he was admitting was that after ten years of Pate’s leadership, Republicans had lost a lot of ground. Instead of using his office and the bully pulpit of the senate Republican caucus to sell Republican solutions to Illinoisans, the state got even “bluer.”

It is true that Pate Philip blocked some very bad bills from becoming law, but that’s no longer good enough. And while there are individual legislators here and there doing a yeoman’s job, more must be done by the rest. After all, state and local government already constitutes two-thirds of the tax burden for Illinois working families.

Four years into the wilderness our Republican leaders seem to think public opinion is like the weather: nothing can be done except to wait for it to change. They’re wrong, and that kind of thinking will keep Republican principles in exile.

There already is a pro-big-government party in Illinois. It’s called the Democratic Party. If the GOP is to be different, Republican legislators have to develop an alternative plan and sell it to voters aggressively and effectively. Eighty Republican Illinois legislators can reach Illinois’ 12 million citizens if they do their job like it needs to be and can be done.

Up next: Elected Republicans are failing on the big issues.

This article first posted in August 2006.