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The Way Back in 2010 By: Bill Steigerwald
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Not many political commentators on the nightly cable channels can boast of being proficient in Spanish, French and Greek, but Andrea Tantaros can. A regular on the Fox News Channel, CNN, CNBC and MSNBC, Tantaros is a communications specialist and Republican strategist whose extensive experience includes working in the campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and serving as deputy press secretary to former Pennsylvania Congressman Pat Toomey.

To find out what she thinks her fellow conservative Republicans must do to recover from their battering in November, I spoke to her by telephone on Wednesday, Jan. 21, from her office in New York City:

Q: Republicans have their work cut out for them, obviously. What’s Step Number One on the road to recovery?
A: Step one is to realize the mistakes that we have made over the last eight years. Usually step one in a recovery is admitting that you have a problem. I think that’s an important thing for the Republican Party to do: One, admit that we have a problem; look introspectively at how we can fix it and understand why we were crushed in the last election cycle.

I also think the party needs to work on a couple different fronts. There are so many fault lines within the party: conservative vs. moderate, the more fiscally minded Republicans vs. the more socially minded Republicans, the Old Guard -- the sort of Newt Gingrich-Karl Rove Republican -- vs. the New Guard -- the Michael Steele-Sarah Palin sort of emerging sect of the party. And the party has to decide what direction it’s going to go in.

Q: What do limited-government, fiscally prudent old-time conservatives have to do to reassert themselves in the GOP?
A: Well, when we’ve just witnessed the largest government expansion at the fastest rate this country has ever seen, it’s fairly hard to argue for small government at this stage because the people don’t seem to want it anymore. But conservatives need to figure out a way to motivate by reason and persuade through emotion. Meaning that when they talk about our issues, it can’t come from a selfish place -- “Give me a tax cut. Where’s my tax cut.” We have to get back to that “shining city on the hill.”

I think Republicans forgot how to communicate with the American people. It was eight years of what I like to call “message constipation,” where we weren’t connecting and we weren’t making our case and the Democrats -- even though their policies are wrong -- were able to communicate them in a noble way. Republicans have to do that.

Republicans also have to start to look at talent recruitment. Eight years ago Barack Obama was a no-name state senator. So I think we need to look outside the Beltway and start to look at a younger, more diverse pool of people and tap them to run for office instead of continuously tapping the same type of self-funder individual that Republicans seem to go after every time.

We also need to tap into new issues. There’s a way to resurrect the sound policies of our party, but also to look toward new issues -- kitchen-table issues like the rising cost of education. I think that’s a winning issue for Republicans. There were a lot of issues this last cycle that weren’t touched upon that were missed opportunities. Medical malpractice -- that’s a great issue for Republicans and you didn’t hear anyone talk about it.

Q: Does the current economic crisis hurt or help the conservatives’ political goals?
A: It depends on how they handle it. I think the liberals are going to try to blame -- and they already are -- this entire mess on the right and on President Bush. I think Republicans dropped the ball on actually articulating why we got into this economic mess, but it’s not too late.

It’s also not too late to stand up and start asking tough questions in Congress. Meaning that, you just don’t let Democrats jam through a $1 trillion stimulus without asking, “What is this going to do to our currency? What is this going to do to inflation? What if China decides to just stop buying up our debt?” Maybe that is the best thing that could happen to us -- like the parents cutting off the kids’ allowance. But to just give the “Trifecta of Doom” -- the Pelosi-Reid-Obama trio -- carte blanche to pass this thing is, I suspect, just a bailout for financially strapped states under the guise of stimulus.

Why would we give a state like New York that spent itself into fiscal ruin more taxpayer money to spend on things like roads and sewers? There are people already in New York fixing our sewers and frankly I don’t know one economist who said not fixing our sewers got us into this mess. No one seems to be asking these questions. I think Republicans are still seeing stars from the November knockout.

Q: Who do you see out there who could be a national leader that could emerge to ask these questions?
A: I think a New Guard-type of Republican -- Eric Cantor is a rising star in the party. Michael Steele is running for Republican National Committee chairman. Our selection for RNC chairman will say a lot about the direction this party wants to go in.

Q: Do conservatives have to run away from or even openly criticize the Bush administration to prove their credibility or to move forward and get back to basics?
A: I don’t know if they necessarily need to criticize the Bush administration, but there needs to be some type of acknowledgment of what just happened. Like I said, it’s never too late to explain why we are in this housing crisis because if we don’t figure out what really happened we’re never going to be able to get us out of it. Republicans need to express some type of recognition to the America people -- here’s what just happened, here’s why it happened, and here’s what we think we should do about it. They need to get off these Beltway buzzwords and these regurgitated, regimented talking points and just shoot straight with the American people.

Q: Can you describe your own politics -- what kind of conservative or Republican are you?
I’m certainly conservative. I’m fiscally conservative. I’m socially conservative. But I think that my generation adds sort of a different perspective over both of those. I keep using this Old Guard-New Guard, because I think coming from somebody who is a Gen-Xer, who’s in the Republican Party, who’s a columnist and a commentator, you tend to look at things a bit differently. I think that’s just my age. So I’m a bit more tolerant. I’m on the softer side of the conservative wing, but I am fiscally and socially conservative.

Q: Do you see any big areas of opportunity for Republicans presented by Obama’s agenda? Does something really jump out at you -- an area where old-time conservative Republicans can really make some hay?
A: Well, if judicial appointments become an issue, I think Republicans should certainly start to think about that. The courts are so overlooked, particularly the Supreme Court. I don’t think people realize how much of their liberties are decided by the Supreme Court. That was one of the most outstanding legacies that President Bush left, but it went largely unnoticed that he was able to appoint such astounding Supreme Court justices. That would be an issue.

If you watch Obama closely, you can see he has mastered the art of repackaging everything to sound like a Republican or a centrist. When he said “my cynics” yesterday (in his inaugural address) that was code for “Republican” and anyone who doesn’t agree with him. He was basically talking about his stimulus package as a tax credit. It’s funny. He’s actually turning one massive spending program into tax credits. So when people hear “tax credit” they say, “Isn’t that sort of a Republican thing?”

You really have to listen to him with a discerning ear. He talked about personal responsibility, which has always been a theme of the Republican Party. To me, listening to him, I thought, “Well, I like the themes that you are hitting” -- he said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that the reason this country is so great is because of our founding documents. But wasn’t it just the day before in a stop in Baltimore that he said we need a new Declaration of Independence? And we know his thoughts on the Constitution.

So listening to him speak (Tuesday), I thought, if this country is so ingenious and hardworking, and if the power of its people is the strongest tool we have, why then do you continue to propagate the notion that only government can make decisions for people? That’s the modus operandi behind all the liberal policies -- which is, we don’t trust you to make your decisions by yourself. Government needs to make them for you. We don’t trust you. So we’re going to grow government. And we’re going to make all the decisions for you, because you can’t make them yourself. Barack Obama’s words don’t match his actions … or his policies.

Q: If you were to advise a conservative Republican candidate for Congress in 2010, what would you tell him to stress and what to avoid?
A: I think we need to start to play “small ball” in 2010, which means start with winning a couple key seats and build momentum from there. Republicans are telling ourselves, “Oh, we’re going to take over in a huge landslide. Wait. Wait just two years.” I don’t think that’s going to be enough. Play small ball. Get back to basics. I would say that you need to be a conservative, but you need to maintain your independent streak.

You also need to show a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to impropriety. That’s one of the things, again, that Republicans left on the table as a missed opportunity. During the Blagojevich scandal Republicans had an opportunity to impose a code of ethics: A one-strike-and-you’re-out policy. Instead of continually tolerating the Sen. Larry Craig shenanigans and nonsense.

At some stage, Republicans and conservatives have to figure out that Democrats have plenty of rope to hang themselves on their own. But you have to give voters a reason to vote for you as well. I think that’s what we failed to do this last election.

We focused so much on saying, “Don’t vote for them and here’s why” and we didn’t tell the American people “Vote for us and here’s why.”

Bill Steigerwald is the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's associate editor. Call him at (412) 320-7983. E-mail him at: bsteigerwald@tribweb.com.

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