Politics & Policy

Toward a United GOP

When we have the opportunity to lead again, we can’t be like the Democrats.

editor’s note: The following are remarks as prepared for delivery to the Scott County Republican party’s Ronald Reagan Dinner in Bettendorf, Iowa, on November 12, 2013.​

Thank you very much, for your hospitality and for that nice introduction. Governor Branstad, it’s great to meet you; and Auditor Mary Mosiman, and all the other officeholders, candidates, and guests here this evening. I appreciate all of you coming out tonight. And I’ve got to say, you sure know how to make a guy feel welcome. I mean, a couple of months ago, I was just a face in the crowd strolling around the state fairgrounds, stuffing myself with something not good for me and wondering if I would be back to Iowa any time soon. And what do you know — here I am tonight in the best of company at the Reagan Dinner in Bettendorf. And I’m very grateful for the privilege to speak to you all this evening.

#ad#My wife Gail and I were here in August because she is a fifth-generation Iowa girl — grew up in Madison County, and now and then we visit her family in Winterset. We were sitting around her Uncle Larry’s house, chatting and catching up with everybody. And Gail just couldn’t figure out why I was so fired up about making it over to the state fair.

I saw the same look on her face again last night when I was packing for this trip. She said, “Why on earth are you going to Bettendorf in November?” All I could think to say was, “Honey, they’ve got a big casino there and, as you know, I’m not afraid to roll the dice.”

By the time we were done talking about why I should spend more time in Iowa, I had my wife half-convinced that Scott County was named for me. 

We’ll just have to see where all this leads — that’s my attitude. And here’s a little tip for Iowa political observers: You’ll know things are serious when I show up in my pickup truck. 

And yes, for anyone keeping track, that American-made GMC Canyon of mine has 276,000 miles on it. And lately I’ve been using it for short hauls, including trips to the Fox News studio. If you’re a regular Fox viewer, maybe you’ve even seen me filling in as host on The O’Reilly Factor. I was a little nervous at first, but now I’m pretty proud of it: Who else can say that he has served as the replacement for both Bill O’Reilly and Ted Kennedy?

As a commentator, I keep an eye on the big races, and one of the most crucial is right here in Iowa. This state doesn’t have to wait two years to have a say in the direction of our country, and the immediate business at hand is to nominate and elect another Republican senator from Iowa.

The one you’ve got already sets a pretty high standard. On the night when Ronald Reagan became president-elect, 16 states chose new Republican senators. There’s one left, and to this day you won’t find a better prepared, harder-working guy in the Senate than my friend Chuck Grassley. 

In next year’s primary, it’s a jump ball. And after the 3rd of June, here’s what going to matter: Not only can we replace Tom Harkin with a Republican — we can win back a majority in the United States Senate. 

It’s a year and a week since our party lost the presidential election. And, yes, I ran again last year and came up a bit short myself. In the statewide vote, I did keep my liberal-progressive opponent at 17 points below President Obama’s totals. But as we all know, they don’t give consolation prizes for second place.

Since the day the president was reelected, we have been hearing that Republicans are a “permanent minority,” concerned only with the rich and well-to-do – you know, “out of touch” with younger voters and regular working people.

My favorite part is hearing the Democratic establishment talk about itself. They speak as if they are now the permanent governing class and we’d all better get used to it. When they discuss 2016 and the presidency, it’s just a question of which Democrat is next in line. They talk as if they just can’t lose.

If I don’t sound impressed, it’s because I’ve heard the Democrat leadership in Massachusetts talk like this all of my adult life. And I’ve seen how a comfortable establishment can be made uncomfortable in a hurry. 

When the special election in Massachusetts was called four years ago, it was pretty much viewed as a formality. In a state with just around 12 percent Republican registration, what were the chances? I ran as the presumed loser, and the question I heard most was, “Scott, why even bother?” It was all supposed to be a done deal, and Scott Brown wasn’t part of the deal.

I never bought into that thinking. On the other side I sensed overconfidence. Like many of you, I have always loved the game of basketball, and I learned early on that no self-respecting player ever leaves the court before taking his best shot. The way I saw it, running for the Senate was no different. I was going to give it my best shot, take nothing for granted, and run to win.

I ran on issues, and I fought clean. 

I said that with the federal government already spending too much, taxing too much, and borrowing too much, the last thing we needed in Washington was another yes man or yes woman.

I said that we needed to get off the road of big government and focus again on private enterprise, new jobs for our people, and basic federal duties starting with the security of our nation.

I said then what I believe to this day — that Obamacare is a terrible deal for Americans, unsuited to a free country, and that I am against it.

And as politely as I could, I pointed out to the media that it wasn’t the “Kennedy seat” I was running for, it wasn’t the “Democrats’ seat” — it was the people’s seat.

I could feel the winds shifting when even union guys started telling me that I had their vote. Then there were all the middle-class parents with kids in college and a lot of bills to pay. They have two incomes, work hard, and they hear themselves called “rich” by politicians who think they get to decide what working people of this great country deserve to keep.

I spoke to voters who were supposedly off limits for a Republican. My attitude was, “Who says they’re off limits? Who decided that these people had to vote the same way, every time, for the same party, and for the same old ideas?”

Well, it turned out that a lot of Democrats and independents shared that feeling. All I did was give them a choice. Before it was all over, we saw Reagan Republicans and Reagan Democrats coming together to make a majority. And as I said on Election Night, if that can happen in Massachusetts, it can happen all over America. 

As a matter of fact, it did. That same year, the voters sent 63 new Republicans to the House, and that brought an end to one-party rule in Washington.

We showed will and heart, and we spoke for a majority. And now, after 2012, the Democratic establishment is back in its default posture — comfortable, overconfident, and overrated. So next time around let’s offer America the clearest of choices, let’s take our best shot, and across this country let’s run to win.

I became a Republican when I was poor. And I guess if Iowa and I are going to know each other better, I should tell you that the Senate race of 2010 wasn’t my first experience as a presumed loser.

I grew up in various towns around Boston, in circumstances that I described in my book. I see some of you grabbed copies earlier, and I should tell you up front that it doesn’t always make for the most uplifting reading. I’ll spare you the details now, except for a few that shaped the way I look at things.

Before I was a year old, my dad went his own way, and, unfortunately, he never really came back. My mom raised my sister and me alone, working as a waitress, sometimes depending on welfare, and generally doing her best. We moved 17 times in 18 years. If it wasn’t to another cheap apartment or second-floor walk-up, then we were the needy visitors in other people’s homes.

I had a series of stepdads. Two out of three of them had a mean streak, and a few drinks made it a violent streak. Both those guys brought a lot of fear into our lives, and with no father to protect me, there were times in my boyhood when it felt like I couldn’t trust anyone. I’ve never needed any convincing about the importance of family — because when you have seen the opposite, you can never take a loving, peaceful home for granted. Being a loving husband and supportive dad, in a happy family, has been one of the proudest accomplishments of my life.

So many other people in this room and around the country can tell their own stories about being poor and trapped and wishing they could just run away from it all. The lucky ones can also remember the gracious influence of adults who thought they were worth the trouble to help. That’s how it was with me, a kid fending for himself and going nowhere, feeling like all the good things in life were for others, with no sense of possibility outside a basketball court. I never had the kind of connections to ease the path for me, or to soften the landing when I failed. But I did have some great mentors who showed up in my life just in time.

They gave me that second chance that most of us need sometimes. With kindness and encouragement, they showed me how much I really had going for me, and set my life in a good and different direction. I worked all through college and then law school, in jobs that usually involved a mop, a paintbrush, or a shovel. Any honest work that paid the bills was good by me, as long as it kept me moving forward toward something better.

It may not sound, in every detail, like the making of a Republican. Yet when I cast my vote for president in 1980, I knew which candidate talked my language — the language of opportunity and personal freedom — and that was Ronald Reagan.

Back then, just like today, national Democrats offered themselves as champions of the little guy, a voice for people at the bottom who didn’t have it easy. But I had been pretty close to the bottom myself, and I didn’t see it that way. When critics talked about Republicans as defenders of wealth and privilege, that sure didn’t describe the party and the cause that earned my loyalty when I had nothing.

Sometimes it seems that all the Democratic establishment has to offer America is better-managed poverty. And as we’re often reminded, their managing skills aren’t so good either. This party of ours has a different mission: We are in the business of spreading opportunity. And “opportunity” is more than just another word in politics when you’ve had a glimpse of life without it. 

We believe in the goodness and possibilities of every life. We Republicans speak, at our best, for men and women who work hard to make a decent living, want schools that build knowledge and character, in a nation committed to security, fairness, and freedom. They see their country as a force for the good like no other in this world, and they’re right. Such people have always filled the ranks of the United States military, as their sons and daughters still do today.

All of this describes the working-class neighborhoods where I lived. It describes the caliber of people I continue to serve with after 34 years in the Army National Guard. My vote for Reagan-Bush put me in a majority — both times: No other Republican presidential candidate has carried Massachusetts in the last 50 years, and President Reagan did it twice.

For all that has changed in three decades, this is still what a Republican majority looks like. The main difference is that in 2014 and 2016, we will have an even stronger case to make — and it only starts with Obamacare.

It began with the promise “If you like your plan, you can keep it, period.” The attitude now is “You’re going to change your plan and like it, period.” And guess what? Here’s the message America is actually waiting to hear: “If we don’t like Obamacare, we can get rid of it, period.”

Remember when Obamacare was supposed to save everyone money, actually reduce federal costs? And, of course, how could anyone even question the federal government’s competence to make it all work? Ladies and gentlemen, this nation fought and won the Second World War in three years and eight months — and in the same amount of time, the Obama administration couldn’t even build a website. And we are supposed to trust the federal government to run our health care? No thanks!

It’s bad all around, and I voted three times to repeal it. Today, the unions don’t want it. The middle class is sick of hearing about it. The original cost estimates are a joke. It’s turning full-time jobs into part-time jobs. And more than anything else, the underhanded way that the program was forced into law explains the nasty atmosphere in Washington.

Yes, as the Democratic leadership likes to say, Obamacare is the law because elections have consequences. But false and misleading promises have consequences, too. And the party that put everything on the line for that takeover of health care is going to have a lot to answer for.

Washington is filled with all kinds of special interests that latch on to both political parties — the big public-sector unions, the trial lawyers, and on and on. They’re all people who’ve either got it made or got it wired, with legions of lobbyists doing deals that don’t include the average American. And the Obama years have been good to these inside operators. It’s left a lot of working and unemployed people of this country to wonder: Who the heck speaks for us? Who’s protecting the common interest?

We’ve got 8 to 10 million young people in America who are old enough to vote but can’t find work. The only time unemployment goes down these days is when more people just quit looking. Talk about being counted out — the government doesn’t even bother including them in the numbers anymore.

A few years of staring poverty in the face, or feeling like you’re a step away from poverty, can bear down on a person. They feel like they’re missing out on life. And let me tell you, our whole country is missing out on the skills and talent that they have to share. However these millions of citizens voted last time, the Democratic party is certainly testing their patience. And when we offer something better in 2016, they will be listening.

We’ve also got to remember that the American economy is more than just the stock market. Too often in economic policy, manufacturing gets treated as an afterthought when we need to make it a priority. 

The economic might of this country does not depend on people finding more clever ways to move money around, sometimes recklessly and often with zero productive value. The next fast move on Wall Street, whatever it is, might give us a few more billionaires. But what matters a whole lot more is broad prosperity for our people, especially in places that haven’t known prosperity for a while. 

It still matters most what we raise on the land, build in our factories, invent in our labs, and draw out of the ground. Vital industries producing real things — that is the economic strength of America.

Again, to point out the obvious, broad prosperity isn’t going to happen unless we change the policies that are bankrupting this nation. The president and Senate majority keep pretending that debt ceilings are a threat, when the real danger is debt itself — and man, I tell you what, that routine is getting really old.

Only this administration could manage to double the debt — to $20 trillion, by the time they’re done — and still posture themselves as the defenders of the full faith and credit of the United States. And when one of our guys holds a filibuster, just to call them out on their reckless spending, he gets treated as some kind of menace to the republic.

Someone has to take responsibility. I’m tired of the excuses, aren’t you? Someone has to get past the blame-shifting and start dealing with long-term fiscal problems that are not really so long-term anymore. Let us be the ones with political courage worthy of the people, because every seat in Congress is the people’s seat — it’s your seat. 

Against all the abuses that come with the expansion of federal power, let us be the ones who ask the fundamental questions:

Since when can a president ignore or rewrite acts of Congress as he sees fit, as this president has done? 

By what principle are so many small-business owners and farmers at the complete mercy of the EPA, to be ordered around and sometimes run out of business? 

Where does the NSA get off tracking pretty much everybody, in surveillance programs that have quickly gone from credible to creepy? 

By what right does the IRS target groups unfavored by the federal establishment?

The answer to all these questions is the same: None of this is anywhere near defensible in a free society. 

We need a fresh new approach, and here’s the best I can do offhand: How about we start running this government again by the principles and limits of the United States Constitution?

As you know, unlimited government brings unlimited conflict, because freedom is so often at stake, and this is what we’re seeing today. The Senate majority bends the rules to its purposes, with no respect for the opposition. The president has redefined “divisive” as disagreeing with him. Too many in the press corps play right along, so that coverage of major debates can seem like a rigged game where conservatives are always set up to look bad.

It makes for a tough environment, raising serious disputes over strategy. And I’m betting that everyone in this room will agree — we’ve got to stay on offense. The trick is to do that without letting everything unravel over differences of strategy. If we start treating every last legislative maneuver as a make-or-break loyalty test, all we’re doing is inviting the kind of disunity that our opponents want to exploit. The result? Our party is thrown right back on the defensive, at exactly the time we should be fighting together for the great principles we all share.

Here’s another thought to keep in mind as Republicans: What we’ve got right now in Washington is nobody’s idea of the way the American government should operate. And when our moment comes to lead again, we can’t be like them. We never want to make their tactics our own — repeating the same abuses they are, leaving the same ill will that they have, and getting nothing done as is the case now.

In a two-party system, things are bound to get a little rough sometimes, and they always have. We want people with convictions and backbone, not a bunch of pushovers who agree on everything because they believe in nothing. But somewhere between unbending partisanship and wishy-washy conformity there’s got to be a place where we meet and carry out the business of our country. There has to be a basic respect across party lines, a willingness to act as Americans first. Let me repeat that — as Americans first, putting our country first before petty partisan politics, or personal political interests. Without it, all we’re going to see are more bad laws and a lot more resentment. And let me tell you, in politics just like in the rest of life, once you let a bitter spirit take over, nothing good will ever come of it. 

A background like mine teaches you not to let yourself get pushed around. But I learned as well not to be the guy who pushes others around. Because I grew up around people who solved every problem with a fight, I guess I carried those lessons with me into politics, steering as far clear as I could of the personal and petty. In the Senate, I stayed on cordial terms with every member, even if that meant breaking from the pack now and then, redrawing comfortable lines, taking a risk. When the safe and routine in Washington gets nothing done, then it is time to abandon the safe and routine.

We’ve all heard stories about the dealings between President Reagan, whom we are here honoring tonight, and House Speaker Tip O’Neill. And, sure, sometimes it’s overstated — Reagan made history because, among other reasons, he didn’t get rolled by the speaker of the House. But there’s something to it, and when I had dinner with Mrs. Reagan after I gave the 100th-birthday celebration keynote at the Reagan Library, she shared a story with me. 

She told me about when her husband was shot and how Speaker O’Neill had come to the hospital when the president was out of surgery. The speaker had slipped into the recovery room and by himself began reciting the 23rd psalm. Hearing “the Lord is my shepherd . . . ,” the president joined in and, holding hands, they prayed together. When they finished, Mrs. Reagan told me that the speaker said, “Mr. President, I love you, the country loves you, please get well.”

At moments like that, our differences don’t disappear, but the hostility sure does. Anger falls away. What’s left is the love or respect we share for America — and doesn’t that include love for one another? The point is, it shouldn’t take some terrible event to open our eyes. When the habits of hostility and distrust go away, they should go away forever — and this decent, good-hearted country would be better off for it.

More than that, it takes a very different spirit to do great things and to overcome great obstacles. And that is what is asked of us now. To build prosperity that reaches everyone, to protect the fiscal integrity of our government, to stay alert to the dangers of the world, and to be the peacemaker in places desperate for that influence — all of that is just the top of the list. The challenges that we Americans face in 2014 and beyond are going to take the best that is in us all. And a party that speaks to the best is a party ready to lead.

Winning will not be easy, and, of course, it’s not supposed to be. But if we run with heart, count no one out, take our message to all who will listen, and let nothing divert us in the relentless pursuit of what is good for America, then I have a feeling it won’t end there. Having set out to bring this party together, we might just bring this country together, and become again that place where all things are possible. 

— Scott Brown is a former U.S. senator from Massachusetts.

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