Speech before the American Marketing Association Meeting at Villanova University
Posted on June 3, 2008
Great to be here today at this meeting of the American Marketing Association.
My wife is a Villanova graduate and she is very jealous that I am here and she is not.
Of course, she wouldn’t want to be here to hear me speak, just to visit Villanova. God knows, she hears enough of my pontificating around the house.
I am a Marquette graduate. Marquette and Villanova share a few similarities. We are both members of the Big East. We both won National championships in basketball years ago. And we both provide fine Catholic educations.
That is why my wife and I get along so well, except during basketball season, when Marquette regularly beats Villanova.
Marquette is a Jesuit school and my Jesuit education taught me a few things that served me well as I have roamed the Halls of Congress for the last two decades.
First, having faith is an important element in the political process. And I am not necessarily talking about religious faith.
Having faith in our system of government is essential, and that requires having faith in the people.
It is easy for politicians to lose faith in the people. They get into their committee work, go to their fundraisers, hobnob with the rich and famous, and if they are not careful, they can lose touch with their constituents.
But they do so at their own peril.
I think it you look at has happened in Washington over the last 10 years, you see a political class that has largely lost touch with what the people want.
That is reflected in the polls.
Only about twenty percent of American people approve of the job Congress is doing.
That makes President Bush, whose approval ratings have been consistently lower than any President since they started taking polls, look pretty good in comparison. He is usually about a touchdown and field goal ahead of Congress in his approval ratings.
Why do people hate Washington so much?
My own theory on this is that the American people see the bickering, the backstabbing, and the bitterness, but they don’t see much progress.
In other words, they see the politics but they don’t see the public policy.
Changing Washington is the new mantra of both the Obama and the McCain campaigns.
Obama offers up the “audacity of hope” and “change we can believe in.”
McCain’s offers “straight talk.”
They both propose to make lobbying a capital offense. Okay, not really, but if you do a little lobbying –like I do – you start taking these attacks a little personally.
Both are running hard against President Bush, one more overtly than the other.
It is interesting to watch McCain’s slow dance away from the President.
McCain knows that he must offer a different vision than Bush. But he doesn’t want to alienate those conservatives that still like the President.
On a side note, I guess that group doesn’t include Scott McClellan.
I haven’t read Scott’s book yet. I am waiting for it to get really cheap before I buy it.
But the excerpts are pretty devastating. Basically McClellan is saying it wasn’t his fault.
Certainly, it wasn’t all his fault. But he deserves some of the blame.
It was Scott’s less than articulate defense of the President in troubled times, like Katrina, like the Iraq war, like during the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, that helped to make this President and this White House look incompetent.
And if Scott had serious qualms about the direction this Administration took, he should has raised them at some point in time during his tenure.
He shouldn’t have waited until he was going to sell a book, which I believe is number one on Amazon.com.
I know for some of you, the world of politics must seem to as distant as Mars and as shallow as Hollywood.
I know that in the world of academia, where you study each issue exhaustively, politicians seem to foreign.
For politicians, the 30-second sound bite is king. For you all, a 30 page thesis is simply not long enough.
When I go on Wolf Blitzer or Hard Ball with Chris Matthews, I don’t even get 30 seconds. With Matthews, who might run for Senate here in Pennsylvania, I am lucky to get ten seconds.
But the issues that Congress works on have vitally important implications for the world at large.
Look at the problem of food prices.
Every five years or so, the Congress passes a farm bill that artificially increases the price of food in this country, and include in it assistance to people who can’t afford the high prices.
And as they do it, they increase subsidies for ethanol, which has increased the prices of wheat, corn, barley, and malt and just about every other commodity.
My dad used to work for a big oil company. He would teach me how bad ethanol was.
And then I came to Congress and worked for Bob Michel and Denny Hastert, who represent Illinois farm country.
I got reeducated real quick.
Ethanol is good. You bet your sweet Congressional seat.
The Congress did this because they want to please the farm lobby.
The fact is that it takes more energy – and more emissions -- to make ethanol than you save by using it.
But the farm lobby is strong and they have a simple message and strong support.
Of course, now everybody is scratching their heads wondering why food is so expensive.
Look at the problems of health care.
I remember about 10 years ago, I went to my grandfather’s funeral (he was about 85 years old) and my mother’s uncle, right after I gave a very nice eulogy, he said to me: When are you bastards in Congress going to get us free drugs?
You see, that is a very simple message.
After a lot of political heavy lifting – I was on the House floor for the very longest vote in the history of the House, 3 hours –we passed a reform of Medicare a prescription drug benefit for Senior citizens.
The President signed it. And Republicans largely had to do it on their own because the Democrats didn’t want to give the President a victory.
And once this becomes the law, and once we get the program started, what happens?
Republicans treat the legislation like it is their illegitimate child. They want nothing to do with it. Conservatives hate it because it costs money. Liberals hate it because it is a free-market solution.
You know who likes it (as much as they like anything?) Senior citizens.
What is the biggest crisis facing this country now?
Well, outside food prices and health care costs, most people would say the economy.
And the bursting of the housing bubble is a huge part of the collapse of the economy, although as the White House likes to say, were are not in an actual recession.
I was in Atlantic City to do a little gambling the other day, and I played roulette.
Now, I never win in roulette, but I noticed one guy kept betting on black.
He kept betting on black and his bets kept getting bigger.
And he kept winning, until he put down his biggest bet, and then the ball rested on red.
That is kind of what happened to the mortgage industry.
They kept betting that prices would keep going up. Worse, Wall Street, thinking that was the safest bet ever, did the same thing.
Well prices couldn’t keep going up. The market couldn’t sustain it. And now we are in a huge correction.
The bubble has burst, and believe you me, the Congress will do its best to investigate.
But Congress played a role in this debacle, by aggressively promoting home ownership for folks who can’t afford it and by not doing the kind of oversight necessary.
The Federal government has reacted to this bubble-bursting in a couple of ways.
First, the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve took the unprecedented step of bailing out Bear Stearns.
Not sure if that is a good idea or not. The Treasury Department told me that the situation would have gotten really bad if they hadn’t done it.
But is sets a troubling precedent and could encourage bad behavior in the future.
And the Fed has kept lowering interest rates.
As a result, the dollar is at the weakest point in its history, oil and commodity prices are going through the roof, and the economy keeps sputtering.
These may not have been the best policy decisions, but at the time, they seemed to be the political decisions.
And that is how the game is played in Washington.
Short-term political expedience beats long-term policy every time.
The sound-bite beats the policy paper.
The well-placed and well-funded special interest trumps the national interest.
I think the American people are somewhat tired of how this game has been played and they want change.
Yes, they are tired of George Bush. It has been a long 8 years. But they don’t like the Congress either.
Yes, they are tired of the war, but polls show that the economy is the most important issue for the voters.
What does this mean for all of you?
First, if you want to make an impact, you need to play the game.
Congress works on important issues and they need the advice of true experts.
You are those experts.
Second, if you want to make an impact, you need to understand the media culture we live in.
You need to understand how to use viral marketing, the new media, sound-bites to get people to pay attention to you.
You can’t just talk to each other.
Third, you need to understand how to work the Congress. That means finding out who really matters in the Congress and who doesn’t.
That means cultivating the right staff and the right members.
That means energizing the right constituencies and pushing the right buttons.
And finally, but most importantly, you need to understand that you can make a difference.
The great thing about our system of government is that if you work hard enough and you care enough, you can be a player.