John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


“Tell Trump to Shut Up”

Posted on February 28, 2017

That was the most common line I heard as I went home to Illinois this weekend for the funeral of my former boss and mentor, Bob Michel.

Michel, an Illinois Republican, was in Congress for 38 years was the longest-serving minority leader in the history of the House.  

He was a throwback to a different era, a time before C-SPAN covered each session live, gavel to gavel. He was a legislator’s legislator, a man who would rather make deals than throw rhetorical bombs, a Midwest conservative who knew how to build coalitions among Northeast moderate Republicans and boll weevil Southern Democrats. 

He spoke with the knowledge of what would play in Peoria. He had common sense, good values and great judgment. 

Today, Peoria is struggling. Most people believe that Caterpillar, the region’s biggest employer, is going to fold up shop and move elsewhere, if not to Mexico, then possibly to South Carolina or to any place other than Illinois.

I talked to a state legislator who hasn’t been paid for eight months because the Illinois governor won’t agree to a budget with the Speaker of the Illinois General Assembly. Both Bruce Rauner, the governor, and Mike Madigan, the Speaker, have plenty of personal wealth, but if you are a back-bencher in Springfield having to rely on your spouse’s income to make ends meet, the entire idea of public service can get a little stale. Everybody is frustrated by Illinois’s budget mess, but nobody knows what to do about it.

To folks in Peoria, President Trump’s campaign promises sounded pretty good: keep American jobs in America, revive American manufacturing, make America great again — by making Peoria great again. 

It’s hard to put your finger on precisely what went wrong in Peoria. In many ways, the city should be well poised to take advantage of globalization. There is no company more tied to exports than Caterpillar. The city itself is surrounded by a farming community that is the breadbasket of the world. But like small cities across the country, Peoria seems to be stagnant. Crime is a persistent problem. Drugs, especially heroin addiction, have devastated certain neighborhoods. 

It would be a deathly blow to Peoria if Caterpillar were to move elsewhere. And it is that sense of vulnerability that puts people in a state of anger and depression. 

Trump’s promise to turn America around resonated with a lot of voters in Peoria. He obviously didn’t win the state of Illinois, but he did quite well in the 18th District. Talking to residents there, what they want from the new president is less talk and more action. 

More specifically, they want him to take steps to revive the economy. They want him to replace ObamaCare with something better. But they also want him to stop with the sideshows, silly distractions and the useless wars with the media that undermine his credibility and open him up to questions about his temperament to be president.

Even today, Peoria is ranked as one of the most polite cities in America. Being rude simply doesn’t play in America’s heartland. 

I am reminded of what happened when Michel retired from Congress and turned over the reins of power to his successor, then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who would go on to become Speaker.

Like Trump, Newt led a hostile takeover of the political establishment. Not one Republican had served in the House majority when they took over in 1995, and Gingrich really had to start from scratch to figure out how to govern. His inexperience is not unlike Trump’s.

He too made plenty of tactical errors early on. He too got into needless wars with the media that sidetracked his progress and eroded his credibility with his colleagues. He too had a bold legislative agenda that required cooperation with the Senate, which was never a certainty. 

Of course, Trump has more tools at his disposal than Gingrich did. And ultimately, Gingrich did succeed in a getting some big things done, included a balanced budget, welfare reform and pro-growth tax cuts. 

During the Gingrich era, Michael Weisskopf and David Maraniss wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Tell Newt To Shut Up,” about the turmoil within the leadership during the first two years of the new Republican majority, caused by Gingrich’s rhetorical excesses. 

If you listen to folks in Peoria, a worthy sequel might be, “Tell Trump to Shut Up.” They want a lot less tweeting and a lot more legislating to make Peoria great again.