Mark Souder: Old style politics in the age of new media
Saturday, December 10, 2016 2:47 PM
FORT WAYNE – A generation ago, as the recently elected chairman of the Indiana College Republican Federation, I was included in a small birthday celebration in the lieutenant governor’s office for the incumbent Richard Folz.
I recall Folz, possibly puffing a cigar, talking in glowing terms about how much he missed looking out on the beautiful Ohio River. Our family vacations consisted of going to north into the land of the sky-blue waters, so I hadn’t really considered brown water as being that attractive before, which is why it stuck in my memory.
Then there was Seth Denbo. That year I spent a fair amount of time around him for a kid from northern Indiana. Being around him was like living in the books I read about political bosses. As the Republican southern boss in Indiana, Denbo was there for Folz’s birthday lunch.
I’m not actually certain who told me to read “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics,” but I prefer to think it was Denbo. Regardless of who did, Denbo and the others took the time to explain to me, the newcomer, the importance of the spoils system and rewarding friends in politics.
David Tudor, my immediate predecessor as College Republican chairman, and I had tagged along with State Treasurer John Snyder. Besides discussing the beauties of southern Indiana, they focused the birthday party mostly on scheming about party in-fighting and the squishiness of certain leaders (actually, most of those not present).
I remember Snyder saying, eyes twinkling and possibly rubbing his eyes in anticipation (it’s been over 46 years ago, and my young mind was impressionable), that elections were fun but there was nothing like a good, intraparty fight to get the juices going.
The bruising fight for the U.S. Senatorial nomination pitting John Snyder against the Keith Bulen forces led to, among other things, license bureau chaos in some places and me being removed as Indiana State CR chairman by Allen County GOP chairman Orvas Beers after James Neal triumphed as senior party chairman. He required that key positions have clearance from the county chairman, in spite of the fact that I had won statewide election losing only my opponent’s vote.
Beers, friendly to me because he and his wife were furniture customers at our family business and because in 1968 I had led Youth for Adair for Congress (Ross Adair was his relative and law partner), told me bluntly that my disloyalty needed to be punished.
Beers was very upset that I had sided with the “south of U.S. 40” faction of the party. He, as one of Nixon’s statewide chairmen in 1968, was also upset that I had rather blistered the president in local letters to the editor about, for example, wage and price controls. I believe I said something to the effect that if Hubert Humphrey had done that, we would have called him a socialist. I don’t think the “Nixon Stay in China” week we orchestrated at IPFW while Nixon was betraying Nationalist China went over really well with him either.
Orvas advised me to go away for a few years, let people forget that I was something of a right-wing nut (probably sharper words), and then come back and run for office. My interest, ability and our family’s reputation would likely make me very successful if I would just learn that life wasn’t “black and white” but “shades of gray.” He was certainly relieved when I headed to Notre Dame and to Minneapolis, but less excited when I returned.
My whole political life, since I heard Ronald Reagan’s speech for Barry Goldwater as a kid, has confused people because I am both ideological, yet a pragmatic politician who has a pretty decent understanding of hard-nosed politics. Dr. Michael Downs, our professor in a political theory class, once told my friend Mark Franke and I that he found it funny because he could tell we both admired Machiavelli and were morally repulsed by him. Dr. Downs (father of Andy Downs of Fort Wayne) also noted at the bottom of a paper I wrote about Plato that I needed to remember that I “wasn’t running against Plato.” (I found the “shadows on the wall” less compelling than Machiavelli.)
When the infamous Roger Stone, one of the smartest and nastiest of the untroubled Machiavellian in-fighters, correctly predicted a few days before the election that Donald Trump would lose Nevada while winning the country, his reason why was instructive. Stone, the primary long-time political advisor to Trump, stated: “The crew there is really left over from the primary, these old Americans for Prosperity folks. Nice people just don’t argue about politics and actually get elected.” In other words, nice people are “weak.”
The old school, rough and tumble Republicans won this election for Trump but mostly by promoting that style with a pioneering campaign utilizing new media led by Brad Parscale and, most importantly, by Trump himself. We still have much to learn about the marketing strategy behind the Trump tweets.
On the other hand, especially because of the incredibly important influence of Mike Pence as well as others, Trump seems to understand the point that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich made last week: “If you take, as he does, trying to truly move America into a different direction, then it is a remarkably important job and one that means he’s got to build a real team. He can’t possibly do it by himself, and he’s showing that he understands that.”
Politics is always (as in a-l-w-a-y-s) about a combination of brand marketing, rewarding your allies and friends who got you there, and reaching out to those you defeated. If President Trump does figure out how to do that, and he’s off to a decent but erratic start, he could have some profound impacts on pushing the country in a more conservative direction. If he “believes his own hype” then he will fail. It is about that simple.
Souder is a former Republican congressman from Indiana.