The wasted Congressional bully pulpit

I’ve got an idea on how to improve the Republican presidential campaign debates. Let’s have Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul, and Sam Brownback go back to Capitol Hill and learn how to lead from there, instead of crowding up the platform with presidential candidacies that are going nowhere.

My guess is that they’re running for President in part because they think the offices they already occupy in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House don’t have enough wattage. They’re wrong.

Sooner or later our legislative class has to wake up and realize the power they have. I’ve written about how those men and women need to update their approach to their jobs, though most of it was penned with state legislators in mind.

My argument is that the folks who hold legislative offices at the state level have a degree of power and influence that as of yet has been untapped because of limited and backwards thinking. The same thing applies even more so to Washington, D.C., where that potential is magnified several times over at the Congressional level.

Members of the United States House of Representatives deal with domestic policy issues that have both national and state implications. They are currently dealing with foreign policy issues in a time of war. There are few political offices that have a bigger stage and thus a greater possibility of being heard.

So why don’t they see their potential? Having worked on Capitol Hill and having met and observed various Congressmen and women and Congressional candidates, my conclusion is that too many of them are small, unimaginative people.

That might sound mean, but sooner or later someone has to start to be specific about how we need to raise the bar on Congressional performance. Real Republicans have known for decades – decades! – that entitlements, overall spending, and the tax code are domestic disaster areas. Why aren’t we making progress?

One parallel that might serve here to make the point is what’s going on in Iraq. There is nothing wrong with our front line soldiers. What was lacking for too long was the right strategy and the right general to lead it. Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with Republican Party platform principles. What has been lacking is effective leadership and the strategy to apply them.

Two separate conversations I had with two Illinois Congressmen years ago were revealing. I expressed to one long serving conservative member a frustration with the Republicans’ lack of progress on certain issues. His answer was to complain about liberal media bias and expressed pessimism that we could succeed because of it.

Evidently the newly elected French president Nicolas Sarkozy didn’t agree with that kind of an attitude. According to Newt Gingrich, the French media begins on the liberal spectrum somewhere near the New York Times and goes left.

Sarkozy believed his message was too important to be left to the French media and along with his campaign team devised a way to do an end-run around the media filter. They developed creative ways to take their case directly to the French people – especially using the Internet. He won despite facing a talented and popular opposing female candidate, and despite having to carry the burden of an unpopular out-going President in his own party.

Our Republican members of Congress and their staffs evidently haven’t figured out a way to reach people like Sarkozy did despite the existence of talk radio, the Internet, and countless other means at their disposal. They just do what’s necessary to get reelected. They don’t do what’s necessary to get reforms enacted.

Another conversation I had with an Illinois Republican member of Congress had to do with the simplification of the tax code. Back when President Bill Clinton was in office this very powerful Congressman told me that there was no reason to work on passing tax simplification legislation because the President wouldn’t sign it

A lot can be said about that exchange, but my point in bringing it up is that it goes to the mindset of those who work on Capitol Hill. President Ronald Reagan got a historic tax cut passed through a Democrat controlled U.S. House in 1981 because of the power of public sentiment. Reagan knew that job one was winning citizen support for a policy change. Liberal Democrat members of Congress voted against their own ideology because they feared the voters.

I’m not saying President Clinton would’ve signed serious tax reform legislation. I am saying that Republican members of Congress – even important ones – were in no way engaged in trying to move public opinion in their direction.

After President Bush was inaugurated, the real answer was provided: Republican members of Congress have no motivation to advance reforms and the Clinton line was just another excuse. Small-minded Republican members of the U.S. Congress treat public opinion like the weather – and we all know there’s nothing you can do about the weather except wait for it to change.

Wrong. Public opinion isn’t like the weather at all. It’s like any physical object that won’t move unless it’s pushed.

Most self-motivated concerned citizens know how to get the information they want about whom to vote for and why. The problem isn’t the self-motivated who seek out facts. The problem has always been the failure of our Republican leaders to reach out to and win the support of those who tune into political matters only when they feel they have to.

Dividing the nation up into 435 Congressional district media units is a good idea. Where Republicans hold the seat, their office should be information central. When a Democrat does, local or regional Republicans can step up. In both cases, a war room should exist and it should be aggressive and use as many tactics as possible to sell solutions based on Republican Party principles.

Creativity and innovation are American traits that have made this country great. But the progress we see in technology and business rarely is mirrored in the political sector.

This article isn’t being written to outline the exact recipe that will work in every district all the time. It’s being written to invite creative minds to serve their country. Americans are terrific at buying and selling except when it comes to the arena of public policies. And it’s time for that to change.

What has been happening is failure on a huge scale. Americans are busy people, but they can be reached with good, succinct arguments that pitch reforms they’ll benefit from.

An active media and alternative media effort should operate year round in each district. Yes, it will be a lot of work, but we won’t see change without a lot of work.

Newspapers. TV. Radio. Mail. Phones. Internet. Townhall meetings. Door to door. Word of mouth. Community meetings. Parties, coffees, picnics, fundraisers, podcasts. This is only a partial list.

Creative minds will come up with ways to get the information out effectively to enough people to get us to where we need to be. Of course not everyone will care year round, but when it comes time for them to cast a vote, they’ll know where to look to help them make their decision on which fork in the road they should take.

What I’ve written above isn’t quantum mechanics, high finance, or the proverbial surgical procedure on the human brain. As simple as this might all sound, I don’t see an alternative to getting good institutions – which is what legislative offices are – working better.

The need is there, the solutions are known, all that’s lacking is leadership with a vision.

Up next: General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker help the Illinois Republican Congressional delegation do its job.