Florida Republican Adam H. Putnam recently found himself prominently featured in The New York Times, where on March 26 he was described as "the unlikely mouthpiece for the beleaguered minority in the House." Putnam, at 32 one of the country’s youngest congressmen, is chairman of the Republican Conference, which is the GOP’s No. 3 top job in the House. I talked to the four-term social and fiscal conservative about his job, his politics and the troubled state of his party by phone Tuesday from Washington:
Does it scare you — or should it scare conservatives — that The New York Times has declared you a "fresh face" who’s going to be the savior of the fallen GOP?
Adam H. Putnam: Well, for my whole career I have dealt with the southern edition of The New York Times, since my local paper is a New York Times regional paper. But the bottom line is, we’ve got a deep bench, a lot of energy, a lot of fresh faces in our House Republican Conference, and I’m glad that even The New York Times could notice that.
Most people don’t know what it means to be chairman of the Republican Conference. What is your job?
Putnam: The job is to help craft and communicate the vision that House Republicans have for the direction this country should be going. It’s considered the third-ranking position in the Republican Party. It’s a position John Boehner, J.C. Watts held, Dick Armey held.
What kind of Republican are you?
Putnam: I’m a conservative Republican.
In the Reagan mold, the Goldwater mold, the Newt Gingrich mold?
Putnam: I don’t get too spun up on that. I give Ronald Reagan a lot of credit for helping to mold my views as a child: a very clear sense of right and wrong, America’s destiny in this world anchored in individual freedom, the entrepreneur and the need to project strength around the world. I guess the bottom line is I consider myself to be socially and fiscally conservative.
Is your youth an asset or a liability when it comes to this new job?
Putnam: I certainly don’t think it’s been a liability. I was very fortunate to earn the trust and support of my colleagues who elected me conference chair, and before that had elected me policy chair when we were in the majority. I think it’s important that we communicate a fresh, innovative, visionary approach to public policy. We lost the youth vote, we lost the independent vote in the last election, and I think we need to really reach down into our tool kit and find out why Middle America stopped listening to the Republican Party.
Did you actually say that "white rednecks who didn’t show up in 2006 cost Republicans the majority in 2006?
Putnam: Well, that was not my exact quote. I was listing a litany of demographic groups that we had lost in ’06 …. I did use the term "redneck," but I didn’t say they were single-handedly responsible for us losing the majority. I was making the point that we had really lost our way and lost the support of a lot of folks.
If you had to name one or two of the major reasons Republicans are a minority now, what would they be?
Putnam: I think a key reason was the issues of corruption, where we had a bumper crop of scandals and incompetence. … Americans lost the sense that Republicans brought a commonsense, business-like manner to governing (and that) undermined our brand.
It was further undermined by a sense that we had lost our way on fiscal responsibility. So when people went into those voting booths, they really felt disenchanted with a party that they perceived to have lost its way. We were seen as being petty. We were seen as being only in it for ourselves. We had stopped talking about big, bold ideas. We had stopped talking about relevant solutions — and we paid for it.
You left out the war in Iraq.
Putnam: Clearly the war was a major factor. It was a tremendous factor in the Northeast. But people were less confident in our ability to successfully wage that war because we had undermined our brand on the other issues — on the issue of corruption, on the issue of incompetence, on the issue of scandal. So through that prism is how the voters viewed us on every key issue, including the war. So obviously the war was a major issue in November of ’06.
What specifically does the Republican Party have to do to get the middle of America to start listening to it again — and maybe even more important, to believe that it is not just a lighter version of the Democratic Party?
Putnam: I don’t think that after the last two weeks there is any question about the significant differences between the two parties. Ours is a party that wants to win in Iraq, wants our troops to have the tools that they need to be successful, versus the Democrats who want to tie one hand behind our troops’ backs and second-guess the decisions of the commanders on the ground and withhold the funds to those commanders as leverage in addition to loading up $20 billion in pork onto a wagon that our troops are supposed to pull across the president’s desk. …
As we go into this week, you’re talking about Republicans who believe very strongly that the pro-growth tax-reforms of the last six years have put more money in the pockets of families, have eliminated the penalties for getting married and have allowed small businesses to grow and prosper as opposed to the Democratic budget, which offers the largest tax increase in American history — bigger than Clinton’s — and does nothing about what I consider to be the looming generational crisis, which is making Social Security and Medicare solvent and relevant for today’s and tomorrow’s citizens.
You believe that Social Security reform is an issue that appeals to young people and college people and that Republicans can sell the idea of reforming or "privatizing" — if you want to use that loaded term …
Putnam: "Personalizing"… Look, I am in the generation that will hit retirement age and have nothing after all these years of the government taking out of my paycheck if Congress doesn’t act. I’m also a congressman from Florida who represents a substantial senior population. I believe that you have to look people in the eye and speak very honestly about the situation we face, where 78 million Americans will be entering retirement age in the next nine years and only 38 million will be entering the work force. This upside-down pyramid can not stand. Republicans and Democrats alike recognize the scope of this problem and only Republicans have been willing to deal with it — and we got our heads handed to us in 2005. But it requires a level of political courage that Republicans were willing to exhibit and that this new Democratic majority has not.
Was there a big lesson you learned from the Republican loss in 2006 that you said, "Wow. We can’t do this or can’t do that" or "We’ve got to remember this or that"?
Putnam: Well, we have to go back to our roots in fiscal responsibility and do a better job of articulating that. In 2005, for the first time since Ronald Reagan was president, we were able to bring $40 billion in reforms to the mandatory-spending side of the ledger — the part of the budget that is essentially on auto-pilot — and nobody in America, nobody in our base, nobody even knew that we had done that.
We had lost our way on the earmarks, and we had people out there trying to defend the indefensible with a "Bridge to Nowhere" instead of talking about the real efforts we had made to grow the economy. We were lowering taxes. We were actually growing revenues for the government to be able to solve some of these long-term challenges. I think that people saw us go out there and talk about the problems facing this country — on the fiscal issues, on the domestic issues like immigration, but they didn’t see the solutions coming out. What they did see were scandals coming out of people that they had a lot of faith in. So it just undermined our credibility. It undermined our brand and it undermined fundamentally our character — and that’s a hard thing to recover. But we’re in the process now of cranking the idea factory back up and trying to go back out there and earn the faith and trust of the voters.
Do your guys — congressmen and senators — understand what they did wrong and what it will take to get the Republican Party back up and on track?
Putnam: Helping all of our members to understand why we lost was one of our first priorities, because unless you understand why you lost, it’s hard to rally behind the common plan to go back out there and communicate to the voters with any kind of credibility. So we have narrowed it down to those three or four issues – Iraq, incompetence, corruption and scandal and losing our way on fiscal responsibility. I think there is a common understanding out there and our members have moved through the denial phase of this emotional roller coaster and are now committed to stand together, to work as a team, to learn from the lessons of last November and to get this country moving in the right direction again.