Jon Kyl is the sort of public servant who should have been running for president this year. Instead, we'll just have to make do with some of his wisdom as the U.S. senator from Arizona enters the seven-month closing stretch of 26 years in Congress.
Kyl, the second ranking Republican in the Senate and always among the most conservative, is one of those rare breeds who seem to make no strong enemies even while holding firm to a consistent philosophy. A leader on issues ranging from defense policy (especially missile defense) to criminal justice to tax cuts, Kyl is inevitably among the most knowledgeable people in the room on any subject about which he speaks -- but he often willingly pushes others toward the spotlight if he thinks, tactically, that those others can best advance his cause.
I sought Kyl out on Tuesday, therefore, as a voice of conservative thoughtfulness who might have a good sense of where things stand politically right now for cause and country. His outlook wasn't bearish, but it was decidedly sobering.
"As a general proposition I think right now the president and the Senate are 50-50 propositions and the House is only slightly better than that," he said. "I think that, ironically, President Obama has a firmer fix on what this election is going to be about than a lot of Republicans do. He is clear that he wants to fight for the fundamental progressive agenda to totally change the direction of our country, and I don't think Republicans yet appreciate what a radical change that would be. But we are beginning to figure that out.
"Obama is perfectly happy to litigate this question of the power of government versus the power of freedom. He believes in the power of government. That is all he has ever known. He doesn't appreciate the private economic market and he sees his role as president as managing all of this rather than allowing the private sector to manage itself. And I think Mitt Romney has to take up that challenge because he is on the side of traditional America, the system that made us great and can continue to keep us on top, but he's got to be able to articulate that kind of view against Obama's vision of a government-centered country."
Well, then, I asked, are we on the Right making our case?
Kyl's blunt answer: "No. We are not very good at it."
Then, unbidden, Kyl continued: "One of the people best at it is Arthur Brooks [president of the American Enterprise Institute]. He says we tend to get mired down in statistics. We do. But [Brooks says] we need to talk in terms of the concept of fairness because that's the concept the liberals like to talk about."
As it happened, one day earlier I had attended a speech by Brooks at the Heritage Foundation, explaining just this idea, which he develops in full in his new book, The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise. "We have to make the moral case for free enterprise," Brooks said. "The economic case is unambiguous, and we've been getting all the words right about free enterprise -- but we've been missing the music…. We've talked about efficiency, when most people care about a better life."
Case in point: welfare reform [of Aid to Families with Dependent Children] in 1996. Conservatives yelled for years about how expensive welfare was. But until conservatives started talking about reform as actually being a better way to help the people who needed it, they didn't get very far. "The morality, not the materialism, changed that policy," Brooks said.
Anyway, Brooks went on from there to explain that the happiest people in America are those who have experienced "earned success," which he called the opposite of "learned helplessness." The American people, he said, citing various studies, still believe that "fairness" is a matter not just of equal results, but of appropriately rewarding those who have earned it.
That's exactly where Kyl picked up the thread, as thoroughly conversant with the theme as if he had memorized the speech he hadn't even attended: "The Left, really, has a very materialistic view. We need to do a much better job of articulating the whole point about free enterprise…. Romney and the Republicans better be prepared to defend the system on fairness grounds the very way Brooks articulates it."
He cited a Brooks story about a brother and a sister arguing about the last of four cookies. The brother said he should get it since the sister already had eaten two while he just had one.
"Yes, that's true," the sister said, quite reasonably, "but I was the one who bought the ingredients and baked them."
Said Kyl: "Shouldn't there be some reward for effort, achievement, creation, production, responsibility? Most people innately understand the difference between makers and takers. When you point out to them that over half of American people are receiving some kind of government assistance -- food stamps have absolutely skyrocketed; half of all people don't pay income taxes -- people can realize that this redistribution à la Obama isn't 'fair.' If you keep doing this, pretty soon, there's not enough for anybody."
Kyl then made a coherent case for solving the nation's economic problems through private-sector growth, not government spending; tax restraints rather than tax hikes; freedom rather than mandated behavior. Then:
"At the end of the day, where Obama wants to go is a very bad place from our perspective. People who haven't thought a lot about this can think, 'wait a minute, it can't be that bad.' So we've got to give real-life examples of things he has said and things he is trying to do, to make the point that yes, it could be that bad, things like rationing of health care under Medicare and Medicaid for example. A perpetual reduction in our standard of living, reflected in the fact that the government is taking so much out of our private sector that we are in danger of becoming like the European states. And he's reducing our influence in the world, so much that we are subject to the winds that blow rather than being in some sort of control over events that can harm us.
"I think it all gets down to the difference between liberty and opportunity on one side, and government power on the other side. The people in the middle are not 'moderates,' they are 'independents.' They do not like government; they don't like politicians, they do not like the power structure, but they do have core beliefs. I think Americans' core beliefs include a healthy dose of wanting to live their own lives the way they want to live it, not having the government control everything, I think we can appeal to that."
Coming from a man whose entire demeanor exudes common sense, competence and decency, the message is entirely believable and saleable.
One other point Kyl made is that Republicans "need to be prepared to talk a little more about foreign policy and defense policy than we are doing right now." If Israel attacks Iran; if some other crisis emerges, he said, we must be ready to offer leadership and show that we understand what's happening. And while defense savings can be achieved, he said, he warned strongly against "Draconian cuts" to the military.
In another nice coincidence, backing for that position came later that day from an unexpected source. In an otherwise off-the-record, high-minded, roundtable discussion with freshman U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Ayotte volunteered much the same idea, and said that advocating a strong defense isn't just good policy but good politics, too, even in her own state without major military bases. Mentioning Kyl's name, unprompted, among three senators she said who really understand these things, Ayotte said:
"I raise this at every town meeting…. People generally appreciate that the foremost issue of government is to keep the people safe…. This is something that resonates with my constituents: We are in a very real fiscal crisis, yet what are we putting in jeopardy first? The very people who put their lives on the line for us. My constituents understand that is not the best choice we can make."
Ayotte represents a decidedly "purple" or "swing" state, one with a Democratic governor for 14 of the past 16 tears -- yet she won her Senate seat, in her first-ever run for public office, by more than 22 points. Maybe she, and Kyl, is on to something.
But back to my interview with Kyl. "All that said," Kyl hastened to add after having brought up defense issues, "I still think we're talking about the economy first. The more people you have dependent on government, the less likely you are to be able to appeal to liberty and the more likely they [Liberals] are to win the argument. There is a tipping point. That's what you see in Greece."
Jon Kyl is a now 70 years old -- but such a young 70 that three years ago, in a small-group lunch that Vice President Dick Cheney hosted for conservative columnists just before leaving office, Cheney listed Kyl among four or five names (all the others were three decades Kyl's junior) he called "younger rising stars" of the Republican Party.
Conservatives, taking heed of that youthfulness, should yearn for Kyl not to leave the scene so quickly.