Why is Vin Weber a member of the economic policy committee for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign? That is the question.
But first, who is Vin Weber? Vin Weber was probably the most conservative person elected to Congress from Minnesota in the past 80 years until Michele Bachmann entered the 110th Congress in 2007. Weber served six terms from 1981 to 1993. When Weber left Congress, although he was by far the most influential and powerful Minnesota Republican, he stayed in Washington. Today Mr. Weber serves as the managing partner in Washington of the lobbying firm, Clark & Weinstock.
After his reelection in 1982, Weber joined with fellow Reagan conservative, GA congressman, Newt Gingrich to form the Conservative Opportunity Society (Gingrich’s idea). Their purpose was to transform the Republican party into an effective conservative governing vehicle for the challenges of the 21st Century on the horizon. Their approach was to think of the Republican party as the majority governing party—something it had not been since 1933. Here is Weber’s description looking back thirteen years from the mid 90’s:
The most important thing is to understand then, as now, that twelve, thirteen year ago , Newt Gingrich understood and argued that the Republican Party could not simply be against. They had to replace what existed with something new. For a long time, nobody paid much attention to it. Or they might have laughed at it, called us the Conservative Opportunists Society, things like that. But it was a tremendously important notion. He thought it through and we discussed it. Words were chosen fairly carefully even before the program was fully developed.
In fact, the program is not fully developed today. But his notion was that what we had in this country can be called a Liberal Welfare State. People think of that as a term of denigration. That wasn’t always a term of denigration. If you describe something as a Liberal Welfare State, thirty or forty years ago people would have been proud to say that’s exactly what we’re trying to build here. It contrasts with an authoritarian state. It contrasts with the Darwinian free enterprise, laissez-faire. Liberal Welfare State was a positive idea.
It’s a sign of the times how much that has become pejorative. His argument was that we need to talk about replacing the Liberal Welfare State with something. It’s going to be, number one, conservative, based on conservative principles, rather than liberal principles, of free markets, individual freedom, decentralization—a whole range of ideas that are conservative in opposition to what we have come to think of in twentieth century America as Liberal.
[It’s] opportunity as opposed to welfare; welfare being, in our view, synonymous with a dependency society. What we talked about doing was replacing that with a society that would actually give people opportunities to become independent. Society, as opposed to state, recognizing that the dominant form of our culture is not governmental and that the most important centers of activity in society, if you will, are families, non-profit organizations and neighborhoods. The grand ascent of the state has been an abnormality, a move away from the norm. Granted, for all of us, it’s dominated our lifetimes. But that doesn’t mean that it has dominated the history of this country or much of the world. We’re going to get, in some ways, back to and ahead of this period when we were dominated by a Liberal Welfare State. So, the Conservative Opportunity Society was a fairly carefully thought-out construct. I argue, even today as we’re sitting here, the main challenge to the Republican Party and the conservative movement is to think through what replaces welfare state policies as opposed to simply editing them, defunding them and tearing them down.
Some things can probably be abolished and never be missed. The public expects government to respond to a lot of different problems like education, poverty, problems of the inner city and [to] figure out exactly how to approach those. It remains our major challenge. You can really say that the one person who’s been saying for a long time, fifteen years or more, that that’s what we had to be thinking about was Newt Gingrich.
I think that military analogies are pretty helpful in understanding Newt Gingrich. He wasn’t a military person himself but he grew up in a military family. [He] studied a lot of military history and has studied the military both as a partial vocation and as a serious avocation. I don’t know if he still does , but he always used to lecture at the War College. He thought of it as one of his most interesting volunteer assignments. He occasionally went on the maneuvers with the Navy to see what they’re doing. Figuring out how that affects his thinking is important. And he certainly thinks of himself as a general. There’s no question about that.
In terms of the strategy that we employed, I think one of the most helpful things to think about is that he had a construct and we really developed it. We needed to develop as a party – wedge issues and magnet issues. It’s a fairly simple notion with wedge issues, or ideas that really separated the Democratic majority from the public, issues where they were plainly wrong and the public did not support them. But they were, for a variety of reasons, not paying a political price. In those cases our assignment was to find ways of making clear the differences between the Democratic Party and the public on those issues driving a wedge between the Democrats and their constituencies.
The Balanced Budget constitutional amendment was one of those. Voluntary school prayer was another. With both of those issues, seventy to eighty per cent of the public said they were in favor of the constitutional amendments. Democrats not only opposed them but used their power in the Congress to prevent them from coming for vote. For a long, long time there were no votes on either of those constitutional amendments. So that’s exactly the sort of thing we were arguing. If they could be forced to make those positions clearly known to their voters, they’d pay a political price. There’s a whole range of issues like that.
The magnet issues really relate to this concept of a Conservative Opportunity Society—always understanding that you can’t just win by being negative. Ultimately there has to be a positive set of issues that attract people to the Republican Party, issues for which they feel confident voting for. That part of the message was lost early on because the press and our opposition, of course, only focused on confrontational tactics that we employed in the House, tactics that deserved a lot of attention. But it did obscure for many years people’s vision when it came to understanding what Newt Gingrich was all about. They laughed at the notion that there even was a positive side to this movement. In fact, it really was much more than simply bashing the Democrats on a few key issues. I think people now understand that. For many years people in [our] own party didn’t really understand that.
[Pennsylvania Congressman] Bob Walker, who was probably the third member of COS, was really the person who was most in tune with C Span and argued the strongest that it needed to be a fundamental part of our constituency.
It’s important in a second way to understand that part of Gingrich’s strategy, and all of our strategy, was to understand that while we created a faction within the Congress, we could multiply its strength beyond its numbers if we also did something outside of the Congress to create a faction, if you will, in the country.
There are a number of things we did then. One of them was to form the Conservative Opportunity Society group outside of the Congress. We met every Wednesday [at] noon at Paul Weyrich’s offices at the Free Congress Foundation. It consisted mainly of conservative activists, sort of a cross-spectrum of issues from the Washington area to become the troops outside of the Congress supporting what we were doing inside of the Congress. Paul is a really important figure in all of that. The ‘inside/outside operation,’ I believe, was his invention. It was the notion that if you wanted to succeed inside the Congress, if you’re in the minority party, you needed an outside operation of activists and organizations to support you and lobby the Congress and write on your behalf.
Their principle tool was the Special Orders.
C Span really fit into that in a very big way. It was a potential to expand the ‘outside operation’ in ways that nobody had thought about. We understood that however many people were in the chamber of Congress, there were always a lot of people watching C Span. I don’t know what the current ratings are. But I remember one prominent Republican in the Congress who was pretty sympathetic to us. [He] would never engage in special orders, for instance, at the end of the day, when the formal business of Congress is over because he said there was nobody there watching. Bob Walker said to him, ‘You’re wrong, there’s half a million people watching.’ Because at that time, that was the best ratings we had showed, that at any given time you only have about half a million people.
I remember Newt Gingrich argued to Jack Kemp, ‘If you could be guaranteed that you could have an audience of half a million people in a stadium listen to you, you’d never turn down a speaking engagement.’ But because you can’t actually see them in front of you, they’re home in their offices and living rooms watching, there’s a sense that you’re not talking to anybody.
We found out, real quickly, that they were out there. Wherever Bob or I or Newt or Duncan Hunter went, we shortly found out that there were all sorts of C Span junkies, if you will, that watched us, that identified with COS, that paid attention to what we were saying, and that were ready to contact their Congress people. We found a lot of the senior members who were not part of COS, maybe some who were quite hostile to see us, would find themselves going home, speaking to a Republican audience and afterwards, a number of their own constituents and supporters would come up and say, ‘Isn’t it great what those guys on COS are doing. I hope you’re helping out Newt and Vin and Bob.’ So the reach of C Span was tremendously important in that way.
Weber’s reflections on Newt in 1996 after Newt Gingrich was speaker and he, Weber, was out of Congress
I like him. I liked him then; I like him now. I think he’s a guy with a good sense of humor who likes to have a good time. We’d go to movies and restaurants together and we enjoyed each other’s company, I’d say. He is however, a workaholic. I guess that probably has some technical meaning and psychological jargon and I’m not trying to engage in any armchair analysis. I just mean when people ask me about his success, I say there’s a lot that’s unique there. Some of it’s not very hard to explain. Number one, he is very smart. I’m not saying he’s smarter than anybody in the Congress, but he’s a very smart guy. [He has] a high IQ, Ph.D in history, all that stuff. Second of all, he really probably works harder than anyone in the Congress. If you’re smarter than most people and work harder than just about everybody else, it’s hard for you to fail. A lot of that explains Newt Gingrich.
When everybody else is done working at the end of the day and would like some leisure time, time with their family, Newt Gingrich is ready for another round of meetings to clarify the issue that didn’t get clarified at the three o’clock meeting. If you get done at ten o’clock and still haven’t driven it home finally, he’ll say, ‘I’m going to go for a walk tomorrow morning at six-thirty. Why don’t you join me and we’ll talk about this some more?’ And he means it and he’ll be there.
We’re friends and we socialize together. But it’s hard to form a close personal attachment to somebody who is really consumed by his work. I’m sure that his wife Marianne, who’s also a very good friend of mine, finds that frustrating too because nothing really comes before his work.
Would Speaker Gingrich make a good President?
I think he would. I think he’d be a very good President. He has a sense of history. He has an understanding of the issues and he’s shown himself, both as House Republican [Whip] and now as the Speaker of the House, to be able to manage and construct a system that operates efficiently. He’s not just rhetorical. He’s not just philosophical. He’s also highly practical. I think he’d make a great President, actually.
Nearly 15 years later, November 12, 2010, Weber introduced Gingrich at the U.S. GLOBAL LEADERSHIP COALITION with these recommendations:
Thank you. Wonderful. Thanks very much, John. Thank you very much. Great to be with you this morning. I am here for two reasons: one is my tremendous respect and friendship for Speaker Gingrich, and the other is because I’ve learned over my 12 years in Congress that when Ester Kurz asks me to do something, I just saluted it and did it.
But it’s a true pleasure to be here to introduce the speaker this morning. I was elected to Congress in 1980 – sorry, 1981, 1982. Speaker Gingrich had been elected two years earlier. And I was thinking about the traditional introduction I could give to him. There are so many things to say about Newt Gingrich that’s appropriate to this topic and this audience. He does have a Ph.D. in European history. He is the most frequent lecturer to the senior military officers and has been for over 25 years. He’s, in a sense, trained much of our upper-military command.
He did authorize the Hart-Rudman Commission, one of the most important commissions looking at our national security structure in recent years. He is the author of 22 books. All that is very important, but I want to talk about Newt Gingrich a little bit more personally for a second, if I can, because I can remember the first day that he and I began working together – the very first day.
And it was – in my first term in Congress we didn’t really know each other personally very well. We kept finding, in Republican conferences, that we were coming down on the same sides of different issues, saying more or less the same things.
There was a lame-duck session after that election in 1982. And the last day of the lame-duck session of 1982, I remember standing in the well of the House, and this guy who I knew but didn’t really know came up to me. And Newt’s exact words to me were: “What are you doing for the next 10 years?” (Chuckles.) Word for word. And I thought about it, I said, “I don’t know, I guess I’m hanging around here.” (Chuckles.)
But that was the beginning of an effort to pull together a group of members of Congress that did a lot of things together. And in the popular reading of it, Newt Gingrich led the Republicans to take back the House of Representatives, after 40 years, in the 1994 election. And that’s, of course, true. But that was not the primary objective.
Newt Gingrich’s primary objective was to transform the Republican Party into a modern instrument that could positively lead America in a time of profound change that he saw coming and very few others did. I remember an analogy that Professor Gingrich used for us at Congress. He said, America, for decades, has been like a boat on a very still lake. And we’re about to enter a white-water river. This was in the 1980s. When I think about what has happened to our country over the last 20 or 30 years – how prescient that was.
I truly believe that other than Ronald Reagan, nobody in my lifetime has done more to help transform the Republican Party and the U.S. House of Representatives into an effective vehicle for leading America in a very dangerous time. And those times are not getting less dangerous, they are getting more dangerous. So it’s a tremendous pleasure for me to introduce to you one of our country’s most important leaders, and one of my closest friends, Speaker Newt Gingrich. (Applause.)
Again, the question is, “Why is Vin Weber a member of the economic policy committee for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign?”
1996: “I think he’d make a great President.”
2010: “I truly believe that other than Ronald Reagan, nobody in my lifetime has done more to help transform the Republican Party and the U.S. House of Representatives into an effective vehicle for leading America in a very dangerous time. And those times are not getting less dangerous, they are getting more dangerous. So it’s a tremendous pleasure for me to introduce to you one of our country’s most important leaders, and one of my closest friends, Speaker Newt Gingrich.”
Working for Romney????