Bill Steigerwald

With Democrats running Congress and Republicans hoping to rediscover and reinvigorate their core conservative values, Genevieve Wood of The Heritage Foundation has her work cut out for her. As director of strategic operations, it’s her job to promote and educate the media, Congress and grassroots organizations about her think tank’s conservative ideas. A frequent commentator on the talk shows, she's also founder of a media consulting and training company. I talked to her Feb. 13 by phone from her offices in Washington.

Q: We have Mitt Romney, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani ... . Is this the best that the party of Reagan can come up with today?
A: The fact that not one of them has secured what I would call the conservative base, I think, means there is room for somebody else to step in. The problem is, who is that other person? When you talk to conservatives they all say they are not happy with any of the front-runners right now. But no one has been able to put forward another candidate that they would like a lot better. Until somebody can do that, these three are going to stay in the lead.

Q: How about Newt Gingrich?
A: A lot of conservatives like Newt because conservatives at their core are people who like ideas and like reform ideas, which Newt is obviously known for back in ’94, in bringing in the Republican majority then. And that has been something that has really been lacking over the last few years. Newt is weighing his options. He’s going to see how these three play out without having to spend a lot of money upfront right now and, as he said, make a decision at the end of summer.

Q: What’s happened to the conservative movement? Are its ideas still valid or are they getting stale? What’s the problem?
A: People in the minority tend to be hungrier than those in the majority. Republicans have now been in the majority for over 10 years in the Congress and they’ve ended up holding the White House. It became about holding on to power, unfortunately, instead of putting into practice conservative principles like limiting government and reducing spending.

I said to people during this last election cycle in 2006 that there has been a lot of talk about how disillusioned social conservatives were. It’s true. But the folks at the Cato Institute were also just as disillusioned, and for other reasons. You have to look at the full base and say, “Look, this isn’t just one segment that’s disillusioned. There are a number of factions that are.” And I think it’s because the party stopped talking about reform and stopped talking about ideas.

Q: The Cato Institute did a study on libertarian voters that showed that Republicans have lost a sizable chunk of that libertarian faction – the ones who really do want limited government and are extra serious about libertarian principles.
A: Right. You cannot pass things like the Medicare bill and continue with this earmark kind of funding that we saw in the last Congress and hold on to libertarians or conservatives. You can’t do it, because at the end of the day that’s why those folks voted for you in the first place.

Some people look at 2006 and say it was all about Iraq. If that’s what the White House takes away, or that’s what the Republicans left on the Hill take away, then they’ve missed a big part of it. I think you had a disillusioned base that was willing to hold in there on the war – if other things were going well. But when you are spending a lot of money and you are not doing other things, and then you’ve got this war that nobody knows for sure how things are going to go, it makes it tough to win elections.

Q: What’s the most important issue or idea that conservatives need to stress to get back to where they want to be?
A: They’ve got to go back to the basics and one of the very basics would be we’ve got to rein in entitlements. It is a huge crisis facing the country -- Social Security, Medicare, health care systems -- and I think conservatism has answers for those things. But we’ve got to address some of them. We should have some bold reforms like we did with welfare reform. People are hungry for that. And you’re not going to get those answers from the other side ... . There’s a chance to sharpen ideas again, and, look, they are being created at The Heritage Foundation and a number of places. But they’ve got to get traction from the political pulpits, if you will. Finding the people who are willing to do that is going to be key.

Q: Has the Republican Party – once it got into power -- betrayed the conservative movement in any way?
A: I think “disappointed” is the word I would use. “Betrayed” is a strong word. When you say “betray” it says you intentionally did this. I don’t think it was intentional. I think it was a matter of being in power. Having a very tough job, it’s much tougher to govern once in power – if you’re wanting to hold on to it. Some of these things just kind of happened. It wasn’t all overnight that they lost their way. This has been a process over the last four to six years that they’ve kind of lost their way.

Q: Over the last six years, Republicans in power were told by people at foundations like yours that they were spending too much and coming up with entitlement programs that even Democrats wouldn’t dare come up with.
A: And they lost the election. There’s nothing like a good loss, a good kick out of office and a kick out of power to wake you up. It’s one thing to have people telling you “You need to do this” or “You’re not doing that.” It’s another thing to have the voters tell you that – and in such a way that you are no longer in power. It’s a tough time for conservatives because they don’t see an automatic leader out there right now. It’s a tough time for people who want to see those ideas move forward. At the same time it’s a great opportunity in many respects to regroup, rethink and put forward a new agenda. That wasn’t going to happen. If the Republicans had won in 2006, we would have continued the status quo. That wouldn’t have been good for the country and I certainly don’t think it would have been good for conservatism.

Q: The wake-up call was a good thing then?
A: It was a good thing. Sometime suffering has to take place before you get to the good stuff and I think that’s kind of where we are now.

Q: If Rudy Giuliani comes to you and says, “Help me get elected president,” what do you tell him?
A: Well, being at a nonpartisan, nonprofit foundation, there’s only so much advice I could give. Look, Rudy Giuliani has some things that are very conservative. He’s tough on crime. He did some amazing things in New York City. I lived there before Giuliani and I’ve gone back there after and there is a major difference.

But there are other things that a significant part of the conservative base is very concerned about -- social issues. Whether or not he can convince them that he truly would appoint strict-constructionist judges, as he recently said, will be the key element -- if he were to become the Republican nominee -- of whether or not he’d be able to hold on to the conservative base.

Q: Is there a more conservative Giuliani hiding under there that will come out in the primaries?
A: Is there a “real” conservative Giuliani hiding in there? It will be interesting to see, is the best I can say. There are some conservatives who are supporting. Bill Simon of California has joined that campaign.

Q: If someone is running for a House seat in 2008 -- as a Heritage Foundation conservative -- what is the most important thing you stress to them?
A: Well, your constituency obviously matters. But what I would be advising them to do is draw the distinctions about what makes a conservative a better legislator, a better lawmaker, than a liberal. Why limited government is better. Why reining in entitlements is better; speak at it from that angle, as opposed to always speaking on the defensive, which I think you saw a lot of in 2006. A lot of these folks said they did end up talking about the war a lot. Well, OK, that’s fine: “But you had the opportunity to talk about other things. Why didn’t you?” They didn’t have an agenda, that’s why.

You’d better have some principles that you’re willing to stake out; not just defend your party or defend your president’s decisions. What is it that you believe that you are going to run on and make a difference if elected?

Q: Has president Bush made it tougher for you to sell conservatism in your work with Heritage?
A: Well, look, the Medicare bill, which the White House aggressively pushed, was not a conservative bill. It was not. While there may have been a few conservatives on the Hill who voted for it at the end of the day, it was because their arms were twisted in many cases. On spending, even though Congress obviously holds the purse strings, the White House has not been pulling them back. That has not been helpful, because it blurs the line of what really conservatism is supposed to be about.

That’s confusing to voters, because they ask: “What’s the difference between the two parties? What’s the difference between conservatives and liberals?” So I think the lines have been a bit blurred over this administration. Not that they haven’t done some good things -- they certainly have. But there have been areas like spending where they have really blurred the lines.

Q: What does the GOP need to get back on the winning track for 2008?
A: I think they go back to what made them winners in the first place. What worked for Reagan, what worked back in 1994 that helped them take over the Congress after 40 years, were the principles that defined them as a party -- which was limited government, traditional values, a strong national defense. These are the things that define conservatism and therefore in some ways greatly shaped the Republican Party.


Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..