The Hastert philosophy: Under-promise and over-deliver

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted March 20, 2000

I hesitate to ever praise anyone because if I do that person will inevitably do something which is indefensible in the view of the conservative community and I will forever hear the refrain "But you said he was a good guy!" Nevertheless, I'd like to say a positive word about Speaker Dennis Hastert. Recently I sat in on a meeting between the House leadership and outside groups working on values-related issues. There have been such meetings before, going back to before the Republicans controlled the House of Representatives. The difference in the atmosphere surrounding this most recent meeting and those held previously was extraordinary. The previous sessions resembled a stockholders meeting at which a hostile takeover was in progress. This session resembled a meeting between a coach and his team to plot the game plan for the coming week.

There are a number of reasons for the difference. Congressman Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania has been an extremely effective inside/outside leader of what he calls the Values Action Team. No one has ever worked the values issues in the systematic way he has worked them, all the while earning credibility with the leadership. That certainly has helped. The fact that the Republicans have only a six vote margin in the House and are facing an unprecedented assault by the unions, the liberals, the media and the Democrats this November has caused many Congressmen to understand that they need to hang together.

That has certainly helped. The outside groups have also had to adjust to a level of realism to which they have been previously unaccustomed. That also helped to create this cooperative atmosphere.

Underlying all of this, however, is a basic fact. Speaker Hastert is trusted. His predecessor was not. Granted that these meetings are not as entertaining as before. There is no overblown rhetoric. No assurances that everyone is engaged in historical work of monumental proportions. No dramatic promises with revolutionary outcomes. In that respect, Hastert is no match for former Speaker Newt Gingrich. But his comparative colorlessness is rather comforting. He is too young to be a credible grandfatherly figure, but old enough to be a reassuring uncle.

In meetings past, participants left with a sick feeling in the pit of their stomachs. They knew they had been lied to. Yet it all sounded so good that they didn't want to confront the unclothed emperor. After this meeting, participants left feeling elated and yet there was not a single promise of the sort that used to be made at the drop of a hat. Rather the promise was simply that the Speaker would listen to everyone and would take their concerns into consideration. That doesn't sound like much, but when you are used to being played for a sucker, it really is an important change.

Hastert clearly has affected the attitude and disposition of Majority Leader Dick Armey, for example. During the Gingrich era, the values community was largely regarded as a nuisance. They were just people who might get in the way of the planetary aims of the leadership. Armey is a loyalist extraordinaire. He can't help himself. That is who he is. Thus when there was a certain hostility between these outside groups and the Speaker, Armey got himself caught up in that.

Today, precisely because Hastert runs a vastly different kind of ship, Armey has again become a trusted leader. The difference is truly remarkable. That is because, as Majority Whip Tom DeLay has pointed out, Hastert constantly asks the question when actions are contemplated: "How will this affect our base?" If that question was ever asked during the 104th and 105th Congresses, it was not apparent to those of us involved.

Hastert, in fact, used to be a high school wrestling coach. He understands how to reconcile differing factions. He told me, in discussing all of this, that he just isn't smart enough to lie. He has instructed his leadership team that they were to under-promise and over-deliver. That is the exact opposite of what had been happening under the previous regime: over-promises and almost no delivery.

Let me make one thing clear. This admiration for Speaker Hastert does not apply to all of his positions on issues. His faith in globalism truly bothers me. Nor, of course, has he been without mistakes. He is an accident of history. Tom DeLay was smart enough to enlist him as Chief Deputy Whip during the previous two Congresses and he happened to be in the right place at the right time when Speaker-elect Bob Livingston stepped down and Republicans were forced on a Saturday to choose a successor unexpectedly. He is, in my view, a good guy precisely because he still has enough humility to listen and learn. If there is anything dishonest about him, word hasn't yet reached these parts.

A coalition works when each faction believes that it has enough at stake in the future to hang with the effort. Speaker Hastert is seeing to it that values groups believe that there is something at stake in Republicans continuing in the majority. What a far cry from two years ago when Jim Dobson was ready to lead everyone out of the Republican Party. As improbable as it seems, Hastert may just be successful. The odds of that are about the same odds as a former wrestling coach from a small city in Illinois becoming Speaker of the House in the first place.

Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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