There were two big speeches this week, and I mean big as in “Modern political history will remember this.” Together they signal something significant and promising. Oh, that’s a stuffy way to put it. I mean: The governors are rising and are starting to lead. What a relief. It’s like seeing the posse come over the hill.
The first speech was from Mitch Daniels, the Indiana governor who is the answer to the question, “What if Calvin Coolidge talked?” President Coolidge, a spare and serious man, was so famously silent, the story goes, that when a woman at a dinner told him she’d made a bet she could get him to string three words together, he smiled and said, “You lose.” But he was principled, effective and, in time, broadly popular.
The other speech was from a governor newer to the scene but more celebrated, in small part because he comes from a particular media market and in large part because he has spent the past year, his first in office, taking on his state’s most entrenched political establishments, and winning. His style—big, rumpled, garrulous, Jersey-blunt—has captured the imagination of the political class, and also normal people. They look at him and think, “I know that guy. I like that guy.”
Both Mr. Daniels, who spoke Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and Chris Christie of New Jersey, who spoke Wednesday at the American Enterprise Institute, were critical of both parties and put forward the same message: Wake up. We are in crisis. We must save our country, and we can. But if we don’t move now, we will lose it. This isn’t rhetoric, it’s real.
Here’s why response at both venues was near-rapturous: Everyone knew they meant it. Everyone knew they’d been living it.
* * *
Mr. Daniels began with first principles—the role and purpose of government—and went to what he has done to keep his state’s books in the black in spite of “the recent unpleasantness.” He turned to the challenge of our era: catastrophic spending, the red ink that is becoming “the red menace.” He said: “No enterprise, small or large, public or private, can remain self-governing, let alone successful, so deeply in hock to others as we are about to be.” If a foreign army invaded, we would set aside all secondary disputes and run to the ramparts. We must bring that air of urgency to the spending crisis. It is “our generational assignment. . . . Forgive the pun when I call it our ‘raison debt.’“
He argued for cuts and sunsetting, for new arrangements and “compacts” with the young. What followed has become controversial with a few conservatives, though it was the single most obvious thing Daniels said: “We have learned in Indiana, big change requires big majorities. We will need people who never tune in to Rush or Glenn or Laura or Sean,” who don’t fall asleep at night to C-Span, who are not necessarily engaged or aligned.
Rush Limbaugh, who is rightly respected for many reasons—lost in the daily bombast, humor and controversy is that fact that for 20 years he has been the nation’s most reliable and compelling explainer of conservative thought—saw Mr. Daniels’s remarks as disrespectful. Radio listeners aren’t “irrelevant or unnecessary.”
Of course they’re not. Nor are they sufficient. If you really want to change your country, you cannot do it from a political base alone. You must win over centrists, moderates, members of the other party, and those who are not preoccupied with politics. This doesn’t mean “be less conservative,” it means broadening the appeal of conservative thinking and approaches. It starts with not alienating and proceeds to persuading.
The late Rep. Henry Hyde, he of the Hyde amendment, once said to me, “Politics is a game of addition.” You start with your followers and bring in new ones, constantly broadening the circle to include people who started out elsewhere. You know the phrase Reagan Democrats? It exists because Reagan reached out to Democrats! He put out his hand to them and said, literally, “Come walk with me.” He lauded Truman, JFK and Scoop Jackson. He argued in his first great political speech, in 1964, that the choice wasn’t right or left, it was up or down.
That’s what Mr. Daniels was saying. “We can search for villains on ideological grounds,” but it’s a waste of time. Compromise and flexibility are necessary, “purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers.” We must work together. You’ve got to convince the other guy.
Mr. Christie covered similar territory in a way that was less aerial, more on-the-ground. He spoke of making change in Jersey.
Pensions and benefits on the state level, he said, are the equivalent of federal entitlements. They have powerful, “vocal” constituencies. He introduced pension and benefit reforms on a Tuesday in September, and that Friday he went to the state firefighters convention in Wildwood. It was 2 p.m., and “I think you know what they had for lunch.” Mr. Christie had proposed raising their retirement age, eliminating the cost-of-living adjustment, increasing employee pension contributions, and rolling back a 9% pay increase approved years before “by a Republican governor and a Republican Legislature.”
As Mr. Chrisie recounted it: “You can imagine how that was received by 7,500 firefighters. As I walked into the room and was introduced. I was booed lustily. I made my way up to the stage, they booed some more. . . . So I said, ‘Come on, you can do better than that,’ and they did!”
He crumpled up his prepared remarks and threw them on the floor. He told them, “Here’s the deal: I understand you’re angry, and I understand you’re frustrated, and I understand you feel deceived and betrayed.” And, he said, they were right: “For 20 years, governors have come into this room and lied to you, promised you benefits that they had no way of paying for, making promises they knew they couldn’t keep, and just hoping that they wouldn’t be the man or women left holding the bag. I understand why you feel angry and betrayed and deceived by those people. Here’s what I don’t understand. Why are you booing the first guy who came in here and told you the truth?”
He told them there was no political advantage in being truthful: “The way we used to think about politics and, unfortunately, the way I fear they’re thinking about politics still in Washington” involves “the old playbook [which] says, “lie, deceive, obfuscate and make it to the next election.” He’d seen a study that said New Jersey’s pensions may go bankrupt by 2020. A friend told him not to worry, he won’t be governor then. “That’s the way politics has been practiced in our country for too long. . . . So I said to those firefighters, ‘You may hate me now, but 15 years from now, when you have a pension to collect because of what I did, you’ll be looking for my address on the Internet so you can send me a thank-you note.’“
It can be a great relief to turn away from Washington and look at the states, where the rubber meets the road. Real leadership is happening there—the kind that can inspire real followership.