Governor's Mansion, Baton Rouge, La., Jan. 7, 2009
Q. What lessons do you think Republicans should learn from the last two disastrous -- for them -- election cycles?
A. There are at least three lessons that immediately jump out at me. The first is that the party must consistently do what it says. You can't be the party of fiscal discipline and tolerate the kind of spending that our party has accepted in the last several years, especially in Washington. Our actions have to match our rhetoric. If the Democrats had proposed many of the spending initiatives and projects that Republicans ended up approving, we would have been the first to criticize them. It isn't just earmarks. Look at some of the discretionary spending increases in Washington. We can't be the party of fiscal discipline when we're tolerating and approving the kinds of spending we've seen at least the last eight years.
Secondly, we've got to consistently oppose corruption in our own party. It's not enough to make excuses that 'the other side does it'. Quite simply put, if the other party had been guilty of some of the things we were accused of doing ... the week before this presidential election, you have our most senior Republican senator (Ted Stevens of Alaska) convicted of federal charges. You look at the Duke Cunningham scandal; you look at Mark Foley, there's a cumulative impact. We've got to be a party of ideas. We can't be the party of "no." We've got to be a party that's unafraid of our conservative principles. I'm not one who looks at these election results and says we should abandon what we stand for. I don't think the country woke up one day and suddenly said we are a much more liberal country. I think the country back in 2006 fired the Republican Party and with cause. With all due respect to Nancy Pelosi, I don't think the country woke up and said we want Nancy Pelosi as speaker . I really think the Democrats, to their credit, made the 2006 election cycle on Republicans and the voters rightly said, 'we don't like what we see."
We have to apply our ideas to the problems Americans care about. I oppose greater government intrusion into our lives, but on health care, for example, for too long the Republican answer to this problem has been dumb. I actually admire -- I don't agree with his policies -- Sen. Ted Kennedy for his approach. He is relentless; he is consistent; he knows where he wants to go. On SCHIP, Democrats said we want to expand it and Republicans said we want to expand it, but not as much as you Democrats. It was ridiculous how the Republicans framed the debate. We're never going to win the debate if it's about who wants to cover more children. The real debate should have been Republicans saying, 'we absolutely believe all children should have access to affordable health care, but we don't believe the best way to do that is through government-run programs, we think we have to work to make it more affordable.
For me, the three lessons (to be learned by the GOP), are: We have to match our actions and our rhetoric; we have to consistently root out corruption in our own ranks; and we have to be a party of ideas and solutions. Too often the rhetoric from the party has been, 'vote for Republicans because the other side is worse.' That doesn't motivate or excite voters. You have to have a positive, proactive agenda for America.
We went to Washington to change Washington, but we became a captive of Washington. We were supposed to be the party of outsiders. We became what we were elected to change. The American voters are looking for authenticity. If you've got an authentic liberal and somebody who is pretending, why wouldn't you vote for the real thing? We're never going to win elections by trying to out spin the other side.
Q.A group of governors wants $1 trillion in aide to help with infrastructure and unfunded mandates. You weren't among them, why?
A, The bottom line is, you look at what is hurting our economy today. This idea of how we solve our economic problems. They were caused by excessive amounts of debt and structural problems. And the way we're going to solve that is by printing more money and creating more debt? That seems to me a little odd. I think Washington does have a constructive role to play in terms of the economic challenges we face. I think there are structural issues that need to be addressed.
We need a more rational energy policy that reduces volatility and prices and diversifies our energy resources. We are a state that produces a tremendous amount of oil and gas, but we're also a state that this year we just cut the ribbon on a project that will create 1,400 jobs, North America's first facility to create the modular structures for nuclear facilities. We're also a state that attracted a $350 million investment for clean coal. We also cut the ribbon on North America's first biodiesel refinery that will use chicken byproducts to make diesel. So even though we're a state that is heavily involved in the production of oil and gas, we're also a state that is heavily involved in alternative forms of energy production.
The (federal) government can also address health care. What makes us think that writing a check for different bailouts, one after another, will work? You've got to ask where does it stop? If we're not changing our policies how does writing a check when we're borrowing money from our children and grandchildren, solve the problems inherent in the economy?
Q. You say your latest budget will save taxpayers $341 million. You've cut spending. You won't raise taxes. How are you able to weed out what you call nonessential spending and not take a political hit? When Republicans have tried to do that in Washington, you get starving grandmothers and closed libraries, no Social Security checks.
A. We've done at least three things. You'll find wasteful spending at all levels of government. This isn't the biggest example, but we were paying for on-hold music in state offices. Taxpayers look at that and say it is ridiculous. We have government programs that were serving so few clients it made no sense to continue. We literally spent thousands of dollars on programs without clients. These were created, but never ended. The second level of savings, you have to go through every agency and ask where can we be more efficient. We had a prison in Northeast Louisiana that was costing us more to operate than a private firm said it would cost them. Now they run it more efficiently, making money and the state earns tax dollars from their operation of that prison.
We are one of eight states that put all of its spending online. We're the only state that links it to performance outcomes. So you can go online and see where your tax dollars are going and you can link it to accountability. We spent millions on after-school programs, and even the state education board said we have no outcome measures for these programs. We can't tell you whether these programs are helping to teach kids to read or write.
The third set of budget cuts and savings: you have to set priorities. We can't be all things to all people. We didn't cut the community and technical colleges. We've got some of the fastest growing technical colleges in the nation. We've got a shortage of skilled workers in our economy. So we were thoughtful in the way we reduced services. In Washington, we just cut spending at a slower rate. That's not how my checkbook works.
There will never be enough money for some groups and individuals, but if we're conservative and stand for anything as a party, we have to say we're not raising taxes.
We cut six taxes last year.
Q. How do you think President-elect Obama is doing so far?
A. The president deserves our support as Americans. In church, we pray for our president, whether we voted for him or not. I think we should look for opportunities to work across party lines with him. I also think as Americans we also have an obligation to stand on principle when we disagree. We should genuinely want him to succeed. Our country is facing not only an economic challenge, but also international threats. I want him to succeed and I want our country to thrive under his administration. Clearly I will have philosophical disagreements with him and his administration. He deserves a chance to hit the ground running. He hasn't proposed his first bill. Republicans make a mistake in Congress if they simply go there and say their mission in life is to say, 'no' to every proposal. I think we should look for opportunities to work with him. I also think we should be proactive if we don't agree with him and offer (alternative) solutions. It's not to filibuster what we don't li ke and protest on the House floor; we need solutions.
Q. New face of Republican Party?
A. Too much focus on the messenger and not enough on the message. The Republican Party needs to do two things: One, we need to stop worrying about the Republican Party and start worrying about our country. Second, we need to stop worrying about the messenger and start worrying about substance. We will deserve to be a majority party again when we show the American people we are competent, we truly believe the principles we espouse and we've got relevant solutions to the things they care about, whether it's the economy, health care, international terrorism. There's fascination with who is going to be the torchbearer. I think there should be multiple voices, including the governors. In the '90s when Clinton was elected with Democrats in control of Congress, Republican governors led the way. In Wisconsin, it was welfare reform. The way you genuinely help people is to help them go back to work and become self-sufficient. If you're getting help (from government) you should go to sc hool, go to work during the week.
We showed (in welfare reform) that our conservative principles work. Voters looked at that and said these aren't the same old ideas. They're not talking about spending more money and getting the same results.
Q. Some moderate Republicans like Colin Powell suggest Republicans need to abandon social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage because it's hurting the party. What do you think?
A. Two things. The country didn't stop being conservative; the Republican Party stopped being conservative. It's a mistake to say being conservative causes you to lose elections. We haven't tried that recently. We need to go back to our roots. American voters reward authenticity. They're not going to agree 100 percent with every candidate. What voters are looking for are candidates who are honest and tell them what they truly believe, stick to those beliefs. On the core conservative issues -- I don't think a majority of those who voted for Obama necessarily agreed with him on abortion or marriage.
I don't believe the way to win elections is to abandon our beliefs. We've got to stand for something. I'm pro-life and fiscally conservative. You look at how Reagan got conservative Democrats. I'm sure there were people who voted for Reagan who didn't necessarily agree with everything he espoused, but they respected him for being principled and not having to read a poll to learn what he believed.
Q. Why has the party had so much difficulty attracting people of color?
A. A lot was made in this election about identity politics: first female president, first African-American president. That's not how voters think. They want to elect someone who is going to do a great job. The only colors that matter should be red, white and blue. When it comes to Republicans, we should respect the voters' intelligence. We shouldn't gauge what we think they want to hear and then tell them that. Instead, we should go and engage people where they are and tell them what we stand for. We won 60 out of 64 parishes in a state where the Republican Party is not the majority party. We did it with thousands of Democratic votes. The way we did it is that when we talked to voters -- I didn't stop being a conservative Republican -- I told them how I thought my beliefs, my platform could help them. I can't tell you how many came up to me and said, 'you're the first Republican I ever voted for.'
Q. Favor school choice?
A. Passed a school choice measure in the legislature and I signed it, allowing students in New Orleans to attend the school of their choice, even in neighboring jurisdictions. Demand was great.
A. I read Rick Warren's book "The Purpose Driven Life" right after I lost my first election in 2003 and one of the main lessons I got out of that was keeping the eternal perspective. If we truly believe what we read in the Bible and hear in our churches there are a lot of things we worry about in life that aren't that important from an eternal perspective. There are things more important than winning the next election (NOTE: Jindal's next election is in 2011, and he says he's running.) You realize you're not indispensable. The world can continue whether you are in or out of office, whether your party is in the majority or not. At the end of the day, we are not in control of everything. If you don't have that perspective, it can mean elected officials taking shortcuts to an end that justified the means.
If you don't have that perspective you can say it's OK to attack another person's character and engage in mudslinging. In 2003 we were criticized for refusing to go negative. I was asked 'you obviously regret that choice.' Absolutely not. How do you go home and tell your children, 'Don't worry about what Daddy is doing, just listen to what I say.' But if we really believe from this eternal perspective that there are things more important than winning the next election or having money ... it really doesn't matter whose name is on the statue (because) that has no lasting meaning. This perspective should change the way you conduct yourself, whether it's politics, or business. And it should. None of us is perfect, but you have to strive toward that.
Second, viewing the sanctity of life, I believe the reason people are valuable is that they are created in the image of God and there's a dignity there. And that leads me to believe people should have access to health care, not because of policy reasons, but because they're valuable because we are created by God in His image.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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