The following memo was written by John Tillman (photo right) and directed to the Republican members of the Illinois House and Senate. When asked about it, Tillman told Illinois Review the memo "represents his personal views as an engaged citizen and is not in any way affiliated with any organization with which he is involved." Tillman wrote:
- The Democrats have had majorities in both chambers [and] the governorship for many years. On Wednesday, January 9, 2013, the Democrats seated supermajorities. Thus, if the GOP chooses, it can simply make the Democrats own policy results and use the monopoly control that Democrats possess as a cudgel when strategically or tactically advantageous. To create leverage and occasionally use the cudgel requires a commitment to a clear policy agenda based in principle and an ability to communicate effectively with the public on a sustained basis.
- The GOP only can be “blamed” when they are in the minority if they fail to make rhetorical arguments that put the blame where it belongs – on the majority. Nevertheless, the Democrats and the press will blame Republicans. Confident leaders can rebut effectively.
- It is bipartisanship that created the failed 1995 pension ramp; it is bipartisanship that created the failed Medicaid solution last year; it is bipartisanship that passed two failed budgets in a row. Bipartisanship should only be attractive to the GOP when the Democrats are adopting elements of GOP policies, not when the GOP signs onto Democrat policies that move our state in the wrong direction and gives them the political cover they seek (and thus makes it harder to beat them at election time).
- Given the Democrat supermajorities, the GOP caucuses are reduced primarily to seats that are “safe” Republican seats (there are exceptions, of course). This provides each caucus with more freedom to take bolder positions on policy. Being bolder is helpful to creating a clear branding contrast while at the same time beginning to re-build the brand from the conservative base back to the middle.
- Political re-births are built from the base back to the middle, not the middle back to the base (Obama, Clinton, Bush II and Reagan are all examples of this; Romney tried to build from the middle back to the base and failed).
- The Illinois GOP caucuses have also tried to build from the middle back to the base for years. They are now in a super minority.
- Building from the base back to the middle does NOT mean focusing on social issues (though you should not alienate those voters, either). The good news is that the GOP base is primarily focused on fiscal and economic issues. This means both caucuses can focus on spending, debt, job creation and all the attendant issues (government employee compensation and pensions, health care, Medicaid, education, regulation, etc.).
- To make these issues work effectively the caucuses must carve out a clear, distinguishing policy difference from the Democrats. Being a partner to improve Democrat policies on the margins is a failing strategy. Being a partner to “share credit” for passing a failing policy proposal does not help you build from the base back to the middle – it weakens you with the base and with funders.
- There is a powerful, powerful, powerful draw among House and Senate Republican staffers and members (and civic groups) to focus on having a “seat at the table” to negotiate with Democrat majorities and “make the results better” than they otherwise would be. This is a false choice and means the caucuses lose on two fronts. First, they lose because they simply sanction and give bipartisan credibility to failing solutions. Second, they alienate fiscal and economic conservatives (and social conservatives) because it appears the caucuses simply want to partner with Democrats and cannot face the alternative of defending what should be core conservative and Republican principles and policies.
- Madigan and Cullerton fully understand the seductive nature of “having a seat at the table.” This is why they constantly talk about bipartisan solutions and needing the two GOP caucus leaders to be “partners.” By partnering with them on their agenda it mutes the GOP’s ability to rally its base as step one and then make a case to independent and swing voters as step two. Further, it reduces the GOP’s ability to raise major funding and compete. Donors see caucus leaders and their efforts as ineffective, standing for nothing worthy and with little chance of success. This is why caucus leaders continue to have trouble raising the funding needed to be competitive politically (to say nothing of the campaign strategy employed).
- The “seat at the table” mindset demoralizes the base and thus creates a self-fulfilling cycle – “we are in the minority, we must be a good partner.” The leaders partner, sanctioning Democrat policies, thus further demoralizing the base, lowering grassroots intensity, donor enthusiasm and the quality of candidate recruitment, all thus leading to repeated election failures. The leaders then blame “the political landscape” that they helped created for their failure to compete electorally.
Strategic Imperative 1: A clear, principle-centered policy agenda.
Rank and file leaders within the GOP caucuses must emerge and develop a unified, clear branding policy agenda based in principle as follows:
- The GOP is committed to limiting spending growth for state government to specific percent per year from this point forward. Only by limiting spending to a rate of growth less than organic (not tax rate enhanced) revenue growth can Illinois’ problems be fixed. The Democrats are spending our state into oblivion. The resulting debt burden is crushing our taxpayers, and sadly, putting the poor and disadvantaged - those most vulnerable - at risk by having overpromised and overspent for too long. The policy should be to take the credit card away and refocus state spending on core services for the poor and disadvantaged and education while we work to improve our jobs competitiveness.
- To live within this spending limit that allows government to grow sure and steady, predictably, but not out of control, we will embrace reforms that take a balanced and fair approach with the three key constituent groups being treated equitably –
- government workers and retirees,
- those who benefit from government spending, and
- the taxpayers who provide all the resources to make it all possible.
Each will be treated fairly, truthfully and most important, realistically. This means each group must sacrifice – taxpayers will continue to pay record taxes to fund government though we will work to lower their burden over time. Recipients of that spending will have fewer services available as limited funding is focused on the poor and disadvantaged – those most in need. Government workers cannot be put ahead of the poor and disadvantaged or our children’s education so they too will have to face the truth that promises made by union leaders and politicians from the past cannot be kept. Only this balanced approach will provide the path to policy solutions that actually fix our problems.
Strategic Imperative 2: Make the Democrats own the bad choices and only partner and offer bipartisanship when the Democrats join on policy solutions from the platform above.
- The caucuses must re-define what having a seat at the table means. It does not mean that you negotiate with those in power for how to pass bad legislation made marginally better. Instead, it means setting up new “tables” all across the state. Once you have laid out your principle-centered agenda and specific policies, begin a road show traveling all across the state, district-by-district, civic group-by-civic group, those who support, those who oppose, seats held by Rs and seats held by Ds, and make your case over and over again for two straight years. Define the brand by what YOU say, not what the Dems say about you.
- Develop a clear policy filter that guides your decision-making when you engage Democrats or when you reject their overtures. The filter should be simple: If the policy increases the freedom of individuals and businesses to pursue prosperity unencumbered by government, engage and make it better. If the policy increases government power over individuals and their free enterprise efforts, oppose and reject engagement.
As you put policy proposals through this filter, it will provide wide latitude but keep you consistent. Pragmatism and incremental victories should be embraced when they pass this filter. Having a seat at the table on victories that leave in place a failing system and policy scheme (like the pension bill or last year’s Medicaid bill) should be left to the Democrats to own. When those policies then fail – you place the blame where it belongs. If they succeed, you rightfully assert you made them better by your opposition (if that is true).
If their ideas pass and things get better as a result, then we should do an honest re-assessment. After all, we think they are wrong – let them prove it – but for God’s sake don’t give them bipartisan cover when we know they are wrong.
Strategic Imperative 3: Go big and bold. No one is interested in small ball and small ball does not build a movement. Only a movement for reform and revitalization can build the political and policy capacity to make you competitive on a sustained basis politically.
The only way this strategy can be implemented is by bold leadership from the rank and file from within the caucuses. This strategy is an approach that can break the death spiral of decline of the GOP in the General Assembly and make the ground more fertile for 2014.