On Wednesday, I got together with Congressman Thaddeus McCotter for a phone interview about the future of conservatism and the Republican Party.
Now typically, interviews with politicians tend to be dull because they’re very guarded and they tend to go on and on about whatever the wonky issue of the day is. However, we got into broader topics and McCotter actually had some very interesting things to say.
Here’s a transcript, edited slightly for grammar and brevity’s sake, of our conversation.
Do you think the conservative movement is too focused on the agenda that Reagan brought to Congress?
In many ways, people who talk about Ronald Reagan do not understand the philosophical principles underneath what he did and in an effort to emulate the cosmetic appeal, they mistake the true appeal of Ronald Reagan: the principles he stood for — and I would encourage people to go back and revisit those.
We had an example, just today. Many Republicans are very well versed in what socialism is, because we had to be… Sovereign wealth funds are where other governments come in and buy up private sector assets in the United States. Now, any time the government buys a private sector asset, it becomes socialized, ergo the private sector gets smaller and socialism gets bigger. It seems to be lost on members of my party that we don’t support socialism. We have Republicans out there saying these sovereign wealth funds are good for America, good for the economy, good for prosperity. Well, the United States economy is built around the concept of free people engaged in free enterprise in free markets. Any time the free markets get smaller and free enterprise gets harder, socialism gets bigger.
I don’t understand why in the age of globalization, people don’t go back to the fundamental principles of Ronald Reagan, a champion of entrepreneurship, private property, free markets, free enterprise, and free people? Why we don’t draw that from him at the very time we seem to need it most….?
Do you think that conservatives are biting our noses off to spite our own face in some ways by placing such an emphasis on ideological purity right now?
To a true conservative like Ronald Reagan, there is no such thing as ideology. One of the foundational authors and philosophers that Ronald Reagan read was named Russell Kirk. Russell Kirk grew up in Plymouth, which is in my district, so as I grew up, I would read Russell Kirk.
Russell Kirk (once said), “Conservatism is the negation of ideology.” Ideology inflicts people who try to make their Utopian dreams reality through government coercion. That is not what Ronald Reagan did and that is not what any true conservative does.
So, I think we do two things. We start to lapse into ideology ourselves which is detrimental to the interests in the real world of American citizens. Secondly, we tend to get into internecine warfare and define conservatism so narrowly that it has very little appeal to average people. That is a huge mistake.
Now, I know it is good for some people to play the game, “who’s a purer Republican” or “who’s a purer conservative,” but last time I looked, we were in the minority and we need all hands on deck.
Right, we need more people.
We need people to try to row the Titanic to port instead of trying to jump in the lifeboat.Conservatives don’t tend to talk as much about health care as we should while Democrats are ceaselessly flogging socialized medicine. What should the conservative agenda on health care be?
I think the conservative agenda on health care is very appealing to the American people and again, it’s based on principles. If you understand markets, you understand the laws of supply and demand.
Health care, like any other product or service is right now experiencing a problem of supply and demand. Baby Boomers are growing older, they’re living longer, they’re placing a strain on health care. What we’re also seeing is government intrusion into the market place as well as their friends, the trial lawyers, doing everything they can to constrict supply.
We need to get a patient centered — not a bureaucrat centered — version of modern medicine that allows a patient/provider relationship to be the key and to build upon that. That, to me, is going to allow the supply to meet the demand to the point where costs start to come down and adequate safeguards are there for those that cannot help themselves.
That’s a very conservative message and it’s very appealing. Unfortunately, Republicans tend to, every now and then because we get caught up in what’s conservative or not, forget to put conservative principles into practical application on issues people care about. We can’t do this any more or otherwise, you are absolutely right, the Left is bent on socializing American medicine. They would love to socialize 20% of the American economy, no if’s, and’s, or but’s and every day they try to push the ball down the field a little further. We have to start talking about health care and all issues, from a philosophically conservative position, which is appealing, inherently I would argue, to the American people.
…If you think about it, what does conservatism stand for? We advance liberty, we preserve tradition, and we achieve constructive change for Americans. It is that simple. That’s what Reagan did and he freed an entire continent.
How should the GOP be dealing with illegal immigration right now?
…I think the key here is that the Republican Party should adopt this position: it’s that we’re going to secure American sovereignty and soil without animus or amnesty.
Four factors caused this problem. The first was no border security. The second was the 1986 amnesty. The third is business, labor unions, and the Left exploiting these people and enticing them to come to the United States. The fourth is the provision of legal benefits to illegal immigrants in this country.
If you reverse those four factors, if you have true border security, if you make it clear that there will be no amnesty, if you start to sanction businesses, unions, and sanctuary cities…and then what you have to do is cut off the provision of benefits to illegals. Once that happens, you’ll see a gradual erosion of this problem and it will become sane again. I think we also have to deal with agriculture as a separate issue…because the vast majority of the people there, go home.
I also think, within our legal immigration system, we need to have reforms and get back to the concept, not of prosperity as a reason to bring people here. I want America to become a beacon of liberty for all the world and asylum should become a fundamental reason that people are allowed inside the United States as naturalized citizens or legal residents and then assimilation…Assimilation is critical to helping people who are here legally become part of the American dream and climb the ladder. If English is not the official language, it allows people to Balkanize and actually sets back their hopes of becoming part of the larger American dream.
Now obviously, the GOP took a beating in 2006 and we’re not looking all that strong for 2008. So, do you think that’s a temporary blip or does the party have long term structural problems that are going to be difficult to correct?
I think if we don’t get back to principles, it’s going to be a long time in the wilderness and we’ll be subject to temptations from both the Left and the Right. There will be a temptation for the Republican Party to become more ideological on the Right or to become far too “practical” on the Left. …Either way, it will get you to about 175 seats, if you’re not careful.
You cannot emulate any time in American history. You cannot try to premise your actions on Reagan. “He did this, so he’d do this.” It’s the fundamental principles that Reagan brought to the table that are applicable to our globalized generation and the challenges we face. If the Republican Party focuses on that and applies those principles in a way that is appealing to Americans, we will have a much better argument for what we’re for as well as what we’re against and I think the American people will respond…As long as we don’t focus on how many earmarks can dance on the head of a pin, we can find ways to address that and more importantly, can achieve successes that show Americans we are starting to find our principles, we’re starting to act with courage, and perhaps if we come up with better ideas, we could be entrusted again because we’ve been chastened and have chosen to serve the American people as their representatives.
For Republicans, the best advice I ever heard came from Randy Forbes, a Congressman from Virginia. Randy was a Party Chair back in Virginia when they were going through a lot of what we are going through now at the national level and they all asked him, “Randy, nobody is voting for us, nobody can stand us, what are we going to do?” and Randy goes, “The way you win any election as a Republican is to make your people proud of you.” You do that, you make them proud by following principles, and the political results will take care of themselves. Because in the end, we don’t get elected because we’re geniuses up here, we get elected because of the hard work of the grassroots and the American people have put us here.
Now, let’s say someone came to you and said, “What we need is a Contract With America, but one that’s updated — not just the same old stuff.” If you were in charge of that, if you out there putting together something like a Contract with America for 2008, what are a few things you’d like to see on there?
Well, you’re already trapping yourself into the past. I mean, the Contract with America, I compared it to Sgt. Pepper. It was really kind of a period piece. You know they moved on from acid rock at some point, rightly or wrongly.
The Contract with America was their riff on the culture of corruption and they put some things on there that had popular appeal for reforming Congress internally and that’s pretty much where it ended. There wasn’t any philosophical basis that would help guide the Republican Party through the revolution.
After they got in, they went through that list with mixed results, and then what happened?
They started going native.
Basically, they started going all over the place, yeah. …I don’t think you need a whole Contract with America, I think you need something vastly different that deals with the large issues that we face, not just Democrats are bad and we’ll fix internal things here in Congress like term limits.
We need to focus on the broader things like health care, education, national security, immigration. I would argue that we have to protect traditional culture from assaults by secular atheists and moral relativists. Those types of things appeal to an American that remains a center-right country, grounded in common sense, innovation, and industriousness.
If we try to go for something cute or say the Democrats are bad, so here are 10 things we’ll do that really don’t affect you, but will make your Congress better, (it’s not going to work). We have to get beyond that to the actual palpable benefits to the American people and put it in words that they understand. I think the American people are smarter than us, but if we start using Washington-speak, it drives them nuts. Oh, we’ve got ANWR, we’ve got HR-whatever…no, no, no. Talk to real people like real people talk to each other…