Wednesday, July 01, 2009

GOP 'stars' can't shine without ideas, party identity

Is our nation so polarized that even prayers are overtly partisan?

At last week's Iowa Republican Party "Night of the Rising Stars" at Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines our own state senator, Steve Kettering of Lake View, and state Sen. Linda Upmeyer, R-Garner, handled the Pledge of Allegiance and prayer.

Kettering, the Senate Republican whip, did his job on the pledge without a hitch.

But in the prayer Upmeyer took what was a clear shot at Gov. Chet Culver and President Barack Obama when she said, "We are frustrated with the current leadership" for taking us down a path we don't want.

I had to paraphrase part of that because, with head bowed, it's challenging to take notes. There are limits even in journalism.

To be fair to Upmeyer this was a crowd of 1,000 Republican activists. Still, you'd think they could wait until after the prayer to start hurling rhetorical grenades.

Overall, the young Iowa Republican Party chairman Matt Strawn deserves accolades for the event. He's seeking to reach out to younger voters with new media and plenty of pizzazz while not alienating, or dare we say, confusing, older stalwarts in the party.

At the beginning of the night, the Iowa GOP urged all those in attendance to "tweet" the event - to use the social-networking or hyper-blogging tool, Twitter, to move the message from this historic Sherman Hills mansion to cell phones and computer screens all over the state.

Strawn came on to the stage to the trendy beats of Tomoyasu Hotei's popular song from the edgy film "Kill Bill Vol. 1" - which perhaps was a little overboard considering the audience. But it was part of an effort to choreograph a new face for the party.

My friend Chuck Offenburger, the accomplished Iowa journalist, author and Republican, prepared me for the night by saying it would be like no other GOP one I'd attended in Iowa. He was right.

All of this said, while reaching out to young voters, the party couldn't go too far. When keynote speaker Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, led into a great line about hotel magnate Conrad Hilton he asked the assembled if they recalled "The Ed Sullivan Show." Most people clapped in the affirmative.

The great Hilton line: When Sullivan asked what message he'd have for the millions of Americans watching the show Hilton didn't hesitate when he urged people to put the shower curtain in the tub.

The GOP used the evening to introduce a number of new leaders "or stars." Locally, State Rep. Jason Schultz of Crawford County made the list.

For my money, an elected official to watch in the party is at the county level right now. Republican Story County Auditor Mary Mosiman had a natural presence and clean, charismatic delivery on the stage. If you can do the financial books and speak that well, there surely must be a bright future.

Strawn's party still has long way to go to reach out to the significant voting block of independents in Iowa - or to pull any Democrats.

"We don't need to change who we are to win elections," Strawn said at one point in his remarks.

Just a few minutes later he noted that the Iowa GOP for the first time had a booth at Des Moines' Asian American Festival.

Strawn spent a good deal of his speech criticizing Obama. The GOP chair characterized U.S. economic policy as "Barack's bailout." Employing the commander in chief's first name in a cheap reach for casual alliteration, or calling the governor "Chet" in an effort to diminish him, is not the stuff of an energized party. It's annoying and alienating, and Strawn can do better.

Republican strategist Tim Albrecht told me the GOP needs to find "ideas" candidates and leaders.

This is possible. The party has time to rebuild itself for 2010 and 2012.

But it must get beyond psychological breastfeeding for the base. There's room for red-meat barbs for Obama and Culver to be sure. But right now there is an absence of those big ideas of which Albrecht talks.

I left Hoyt Sherman and a Sac County GOP fund-raiser last week with the distinct sense this is a party that is more energized by what it against than anything else. They provided no new ideas for the media to cover. And we were there looking for those storylines.

"We can't just point out the negative," Strawn himself acknowledged.

Here's a suggestion for Republicans: Call a brief moratorium on attacks on Democrats and stay on message with well-crafted, thoughtfully articulated Iowa GOP policies, principles and pledges.

They already have the playbook for this. It was such an approach that fueled a national GOP resurrection, or Republican revolution, in 1994.

(Photo: GOP Iowa chairman Matt Strawn (left) with Miss. Gov. Haley Barbour in Des Moines)

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