I found Dennis Hastert standing in the lobby of the hotel where the Illinois delegation is staying. The former Speaker of the House was chairman of the 2000 and 2004 Republican conventions, but is attending this year as an elected Romney delegate from Illinois. I sat down with him to talk:
Stump: It’s been five years since you retired as Speaker of the House, what have you been doing with yourself?
Hastert: Retirement is sometimes a fuzzy thing. I’ve been teaching a class here and there. I have a Center in Wheaton College, so I do something there almost every semester and, over the last four or five years, I’ve taught at the London School of Economics, the University of Chicago, George Washington University, and other colleges. My dance card is pretty full.
Stump: Do you teach process or politics?
Hastert: Process and politics can’t be separated, but mainly, I just talk about my experiences. I think people need to see that politicians are just real people that come from real situations and end up having great opportunities to do some things. The old adage is that you never want to see two things being made: sausage and politics. But the real drivers of politics are the people who can bring people together to find consensus and get things done.
Stump: So do you miss the House?
Hastert: I miss the day to day of sitting down with people and working through the process. But I don’t necessarily miss the pressure.
Stump: Today, the House of Representatives has an approval rating of something like 10 percent. How has the House changed since you left?
Hastert: When I was there, we probably had the highest approval rating ever –– I think it was 56 or 58 percent. But you have to remember the first four years I was Speaker [Hastert served from 1999 to 2007] –– before 9/11 and a two-front war –– we paid down almost $650 billion of the debt. Then all of a sudden we had 9/11 and things changed. We had to expand homeland security and support our troops, and that put us into a kind of difficult spending situation.
Stump: But you made compromises in the House that you don’t see in Washington today.
Hastert: I had a Congress with a five-vote margin. I spend 90 percent of my time just bringing people around the table trying to find ways to make everybody happy. We had conservatives then in the caucus, rock hard conservatives, so it wasn’t an easy time. You just had to find ways to get it done. We had a guy like Ron Paul, who’s never going to vote for anything, and two or three other people who would lock themselves in with the press on a certain issue, so a five vote margin could disappear fast. We woke up every morning and saw our coffin in the grave next to us. So we couldn’t make mistakes. But we had a pretty good machine. We counted votes and we got it done. Now the Republican majority is 50 votes or so. It’s a different situation.
Stump: Let’s go back to the era of compromise versus today’s gridlock.
Hastert: Well, the issues haven’t changed. For every dollar we spend today, we’re borrowing 48 cents. You can’t go on doing that. So it really takes an education of the people that you have givers and you have takers in our society, and you don’t want to make the political plurality more takers than givers, or you’re never going to get anywhere. So we need guys like Paul Ryan. He gets it. He understands it.
Stump: I take it you are a big Ryan supporter.
Hastert: I helped to make him head of the budget committee when he was a very young guy, and there are some people in power today who didn’t agree with that. But he did a great job. We need a guy like that as vice president. And we need a guy like Eric Cantor who is willing to get in and grab the ball and shake it around a little bit. At the end of the day, their saving grace is they can bring people to the table and get things done.
Stump: With John Boehner, Eric Cantor and all these young guns in the House, it seems to me they have a very different approach than you did.
Hastert: Everybody has their own style. When John became Speaker, he promised confrontation politics. That’s what he talked about. He wanted to do things a different way, and he is. We’ll have to wait and see how successful that is. I hope he’s successful because the future of our country depends on it. The Speaker has a lot of power. He determines what legislation comes before Congress. He sets the bottom line on spending. He decides taxes. He really has control. But once he makes those decisions, he has to make those decisions happen, and that’s where the crucible of politics is.
Stump: So what happened last year in the Grand Bargain talks between Boehner and President Obama?
Hastert: I don’t want to get into palace politics. You’re second-guessing because you’re not sitting behind the curtain. But as Norm Coleman says, a leader is only a guy walking if he doesn’t have anybody behind him. I think maybe John was making commitments to the president without anybody behind him, and he’s learned something from that. We all make mistakes.
Stump: So how will a Romney presidency work in this political climate?
Hastert: I’ve been a supporter of Romney since 2008. I’m not saying that Romney is Ronald Reagan. Mitt Romney is a different kind of guy. You know, I was the honorary chairman of the 2000 Olympics and the thing was going downhill fast when he agreed to step in. There was corruption and graft, and bad things going on in Utah, and he walked in, and with the sheer force of his personality, put the right people in the right place, and really turned that Olympics around.
I also watched him as Governor of Massachusetts. He was governor of a state that had a hostile legislature – 85 percent Democratic, I think – and he went in there as a Republican governor. He came into office with a 3 billion deficit and left the state with a $2 billion rainy day fund. He understood the bottom line. He understood that you have to give to get. I’m sure the health care plan he passed in Massachusetts wasn’t exactly what he wanted, but it was what he could get through the legislature. He understood what he had to do.
Stump: When you talk about Romney’s skills as a manager, I wonder if you need a businessman to be president or do you need a politician?
Hastert: The important thing is that Romney has been through the crucible of both business and politics. He’s been in the business sector where he’s had to make some tough decisions. I mean, he’s had winners and losers. The Democrats don’t look at Staples, or some of his other businesses that created jobs. They focus on places where he took this loser business and had to cut some jobs, but he turned those businesses around.
Stump: So when I hear Republicans talk at this convention, they say this is fork in the road election. If Obama is re-elected, we’re headed down the road to socialism. If Romney wins, capitalism will be saved. Is that the reason to vote for Romney? Or is it because he can bring both sides together to break this gridlock in Washington?
Hastert: I think you need a Mitt Romney who can get in there and find compromise. This president hasn’t tried to find compromise. He’d rather go out and take pot shots at Paul Ryan. Government is the tough work of getting something done, and bringing people to the table, and finding compromise. That’s what Mitt Romney can do.
Stump: And what are you going to do at this convention?
Hastert: I’m a delegate. I ran. I’m going to enjoy it.
Stump: So is there anything for delegates to do here?
Hastert: You can talk, see friends, and talk to bloggers like you.