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Succeeding in Politics

The lessons of Gramm, Helms, and Reagan.


by James Leroy Wilson
October 3, 2001

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Succeeding in Politics_James Leroy Wilson-The lessons of Gramm, Helms, and Reagan. The world has changed since the day that Phil Gramm announced that he's serving his last U.S. Senate term. Subsequent events overshadowed that announcement, and therefore his legacy hasn't been given as much ink space and airtime by pundits, as did the announcement of Jesse Helms just a short time before.

The three big issues around which conservatives rallied, since the beginnings of the movement in the early fifties, were economic freedom, social traditionalism, and anti-communism. Groups supporting one or more of these causes formed the winning Reagan coalition, and it was so successful that since the Berlin Wall crumbled and conservatives have yet to decide what their purpose in life really is except cutting taxes.

Over the past two decades Sen. Gramm has been the leader of the economic freedom plank: lower taxes, spending cuts, deregulation, reduced government, free trade. In doing so he did not champion the interests of the giant corporations, but of small businessmen. Sen. Helms "led," more or less, the "social conservatives" and their more symbolic issues like race preferences, welfare queens, and foreign aid. Reagan added the anti-Soviet rhetoric.

North Carolina's Helms was quite successful,, winning five consecutive Senate races, though often just barely. Gramm lacked much in the way of charisma, but won elections more comfortably in Texas. And Reagan, of course, was very successful in winning the nationwide election twice.

What they had is what most Republicans still lack today. I don't have to agree with any or all of them on anything (though I'm in substantial agreement on several issues with all of them) to acknowledge that much of their agenda came to fruition during the last twenty years. Under the discipline of Gramm-Rudman in the late eighties, spending cuts led to shrinking deficits. Many industries, notably the airlines, were deregulated, leading to more competition and lower prices. The budget went from red ink to (appallingly large) black in the late nineties. A military build-up sped up the bankruptcy of the Soviet Union and won a war against Iraq. Welfare reform was finally made a reality. Sens. Gramm and Helms must be proud of their achievements. Much of the conservative agenda would not have passed had they not possessed the courage to say and do the things that infuriate liberals and embarrass their own Congressional leaders.

And Gramm, Helms, and Reagan can teach us today about what it takes to succeed in politics. Not just win elections, but succeed in passing an agenda one believes in. I can spot four lessons from their careers:

1. Victory is measured by getting the largest number of votes, not by the number, composition, or media power of opponents. This lesson was Bush's near-fatal error in the late election. Unwilling to be disliked or hated, he came across as gutless and unprincipled. A true leader must accept the venomous and slanderous hatred of opponents and move on. The black "leaders" say I'm racist? The media say I'm dumb? Bush got this abuse, but so did Reagan and Helms. Reagan and Helms, however, hardly ever backed away from core conservative principles. The "moderates," or the "middle," do not need to be catered to. They are infantile and ignorant, they only want a strong leader, and they believe whatever they're told. Speak boldly on what you believe, and the core constituency will support you and enough "moderates" will agree enough with you and be impressed with your courage. All you need is the most votes; anything more is gravy.

2. "Respected by the people (i.e., the vote-winner) and feared by peers" is far greater political strength than "loved by the people and liked by his peers." Reagan's gift was not in telling the people what they wanted to hear, but in telling them the things they liked to hear because, deep down, they knew he was right. As an added bonus, Reagan was perceived worldwide as a hawk, anxious to press the button. He was feared by fellow world leaders. A true leader takes principled ground and stays there, waiting for the enemy to compromise. Gramm and Helms would behave similarly, using their power to defeat policies they personally disliked at the risk of the wrath of their colleagues and the media. But this forced the opponents into negotiation on terms favorable to the conservative cause. Those who enter politics as a popularity contest can and do win elections if they have sufficient charisma. They also accomplish nothing but win pork-barrel deals for their states, bloat federal spending, protect corporations and unions from competition, and win praise by the media and colleagues for being "bi-partisan."

3. Do not give any credit even for good intentions to the enemies, whether they are foreign threats or domestic partisans. That invites empathy, followed by sympathy, and then compromise based on terms set by the enemy. Even when they might have a good point on this or that issue, remember always that their sole agenda is you, your party's, and your allies' total destruction. Do not mince words, then, in telling the people what the opponents really stand for. They, and the media, will call it demagoguery. Level that charge back to them. Politics is the war to defeat, peacefully, the domestic enemies of liberty. There's no moral obligation to be nice. And then, at the negotiation table, give in on the points in which they're right.

4. Do not seek personal validation from your endeavors. A soldier at war is in harm's way, in death's way, and he probably has a lot of regrets about how he treated some people before he went to war. Yet he is fighting the fight because his country called him, and it is the right thing to do. A politician must do only what is right, or at least what is best, not for self but for country. Even if it leaves one unloved, uncelebrated, and entirely forgotten. By taking such risks, great men - great people - are made.

The world is at war, and it is times like these that the urgency of getting the thing done, of achieving victory, seems most important. But even before September 11, this was true. No amount of "changing the tone in Washington" could make up for the possible enactment of several bad policies. Domestic policy victories in favor of liberty are no less important than foreign victories that protect national security. Our nation must remember that victory from a threat, achieved to vindicate right causes, and not any President's or party's "legacy," is the purpose of a war. Reagan, Helms, and Gramm basically accomplished what they set out to do, what they thought was right, and can't care less about the judgment of history. That is the way to live.

Comments (2)


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Gregor H. Riesser, Ph.D from Houston writes:
October 7, 2001
To the Editor:

Airlines were deregulated during the Carter adminstration. How Kahn one forget?

Phased in oil deregulation was also started under President Carter.

Let us give gredit were it is due.

Sincerely yours

Gregor Riesser



James Leroy Wilson writes:
October 7, 2001
I can easily forget when deregulation started: I was a child living in a foreign country at the time. Where Carter gets credit, he should get credit instead of Reagan. Neverthless, Gramm (in the House as a Democrat) and Helms were both in Congress at the time.

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