Sequester shows big problems we can't solve right now, Club for Growth president says

John Dickerson: Let's start with this moment we're in, we're having a big debate about sequestration. It gets very narrow very fast. Tell me where you think the public debate is, right now, about the budget, and what the public should be paying attention to?

Chris Chocola: Well I think what people should be paying attention to is what does big government cost us? The sequester is, the spending in 2013 is about one penny out of every dollar we spend that won't be spent as a result of the sequester. It is interesting to me that all the good stuff seems to be in that penny. You know, all the first responders and the Head Start and air traffic controllers and the air traffic control towers. This is really political theater. It is not good government. It's not good management. And it's an indication of how dysfunctional and incapable Washington is at really managing anything. So people should learn two things. One is: big government costs us a lot of money and when we try to even cut a penny, there's a lot of hand-wringing in Washington. Wait until we have to cut the 40 cents out of every dollar we borrow, and how painful that would be. Because then you'd really get into the pain. So this should be a moment that people pay attention to and they realize, we've got big problems that we are incapable of solving right now.

John Dickerson: We've always big those big problems, and we seem to be getting less capable of solving them. The problems get bigger and the capability gets smaller. How does, what does a person who's looking for hope hang on to? How is it going to get better?

Chris Chocola: Well at the Club For Growth, what we say, is, if you want different policies you have to elect different people. You know, Washington has to change. If we keep electing the same people that keep doing the same things, obviously we'll get the same results. I served in Congress, I left in January of 2007 and the deficit at that time was $168 billion. Which everybody thought was too big. And now we have $1 trillion-plus deficit. The debt was under $5 trillion. Now it's $16 trillion. So the problems have gotten much bigger, much faster - the consequences of inaction have gotten, I think, more severe. Somebody really smart said that things that can't go on forever don't. We are on an unsustainable path. And so the debate and the hand-wringing, I think, is good because we're at least talking about these things and we're debating these things. And I hope through the next couple elections that people say, you know I'm going to elect somebody that's actually going to do something about this rather than just talk about it and engage in political theater about it.

John Dickerson: So what does that person look like? It's not just a Republican, it's a certain kind of Republican. What do they look like, the kind of person you're thinking should be elected?

Chris Chocola: Well you have to have people that have core principles before they get to Washington, because they won't find them here. And they have to be somebody that's not really trying to build a political career. It's somebody that wants to come to Washington to do something, not necessarily be something. And be honest with the American people that says, we have hard problems. There are answers. There are things that we can do that won't devastate our economy, won't devastate people on programs that they've rightfully come to rely on. You can reform Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security in a way that's responsible to those that are on them today and in a way that gives people in the future, future retirees, the opportunity for hope that there will be a program that will benefit them as well. But it takes serious leadership. We need someone in the White House that's willing to take on these issues and explain to the American people that we have hard work to do, but it's worth it-- rather than somebody that wants to demagogue these issues, which, I think, is a bipartisan problem, right now. And there isn't the really the risk of leadership that politicians are willing to incur to address these problems in a responsible way.

John Dickerson: Give me your sense of the risk-taking that a White House leader would take in this instance, and then also a Republican Speaker in the House. What risks would each of those take in your ideal model?

Chris Chocola: You know, actually, George W. Bush in 2005, he took on Social Security. He was willing to engage in a national debate about the need to reform the program. Republicans said "no." I was in the House at the time and I saw it first-hand. Republicans said, "that's too hard." Paul Ryan, to his credit, has moved the Republican conference on entitlement reforms in Medicaid and Medicare. He has gotten them to vote for things in his budgets that a Republican conference would not have voted for a few years ago. So if you have leaders like that that are willing to say, these are the problems we must address - but it does take a White House. They have the biggest megaphone and they do need to support the reforms, and really to I think, lead the reforms in order for us as a nation to rally behind the things we have to do.

John Dickerson: One of the criticisms of bringing principled leaders to Washington, which on its face should sound like a good idea, is that compromise becomes something to be afraid of. Explain how, in a divided system which conservatives don't control all branches, how you come to Washington and are principled but then actually get something done. Is there a specific example you would point to as to how this would actually play out in reality?

Chris Chocola: Well the whole compromise argument is interesting to me, because it's not the word "compromise" that's important, it's where you start. And so if we want to just grow government a little slower, that's not probably a good compromise because we need to find a way to rein in the size of government and reform these important programs. I think you could start with Social Security. It's really not a program that's that difficult to reform. It's, you know, there's a thing called progressive indexing that has had bipartisan support in the past. And not to get down in the weeds of the policy, but it is something that could be done and everyone benefits from. It grows benefits slower, it doesn't cut benefits for anyone. And honestly you could have a debate where everyone could get to the same place if they put the partisan politics aside, without violating anyone's principles and compromising away the things that you say you ran for office for.

John Dickerson: Let me talk with you about the effort to get more of the kind of people that you'd like to see in Congress elected. This week Club For Growth put up a website that offered people the opportunity to "primary their Congressman," in other words to pick out those Republicans who have not stuck with the principles conservatives believe in. Explain what the purpose of that website is.

Chris Chocola: The purpose of the website is really to hold lawmakers accountable for their votes. Many lawmakers run on a message and when they get to Washington they don't support that message. So in this case there are nine lawmakers that represent districts that Mitt Romney won in the last presidential election by double digits and all of them have a 70 percent or lower score on the Club for Growth scorecard as a lifetime score, which we measure their economic votes and whether they support a pro-growth agenda. So some have offered recently that the Buckley rule, which is really not the Buckley rule, they've said you know, we ought to support the most -

John Dickerson: Named for William F. Buckley -

Chris Chocola: William F. Buckley, and he said "you ought to support the most viable conservative." They've distorted it to say the most "electable" conservative. But if you want to use the electability standard, in these districts, more conservative candidates are electable because these are very conservative districts that will support a Republican. And so all we're saying is, if you're going to represent a district like that, you really can support a pro-growth agenda, and you really ought to, for the benefit of the country. And if you won't, your constituents might be interested in finding out what your voting record is and offering another alternative to your service.

John Dickerson: The worry though, for conservatives - or let's say for Republicans - an important distinction, is that this creates a primary fight in which everybody gets bloodied and you have a situation which they say has played out in the last two Senate elections in which Republican candidates have been weakened, lost the general election, leading to more Democratic control, which conservatives can't be happy with.

Chris Chocola: In these particular cases, these are all very safe Republican seats. There's going to be a Republican regardless of who wins the primary. If Romney could perform that well, a local congressional candidate could perform even better there, if they're Republican. So I don't think that's a concern in this case. But in any case, you know if you can't withstand a spirited primary than you're probably not going to be able to withstand a spirited general because that's just the warm-up act. And so, everybody has their perspective. And everyone has a biased perspective, in most cases.

John Dickerson: Where is the Republican party right now? In its journey - a lot of people use different words to describe the moment after losing the last presidential election. How would you describe what's happening with the Republican party?

Chris Chocola: I would say it's a cycle. You know, I'm not - I don't wring my hands as much as a lot do because I was a member of Congress in 2004 when President Bush was reelected, we picked up seats - Republicans did - in the House, picked up seats in the Senate. The media narrative at the time was Democrats are kind of irrelevant because they can't connect with the values voter or the Nascar fan or the soccer mom. Tom Delay got up in front of our conference and said we'd achieved a permanent majority. I knew we were in trouble at that moment. So these things go in cycles. What I think the Republicans have to do is simply look at some of the models that have just gotten reelected. People like Pat Toomey and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and Jeff Flake and Mike Lee and Ron Johnson. They're all principled conservatives that clearly articulate an appealing, convincing conservative - economic conservative - message. People don't wonder what they believe. They are very articulate in their beliefs and they're willing to stand behind those beliefs, and voters know there's a choice they have to make. They can vote for somebody that believes in these things, or for somebody that believes in something different. Where Republicans get in trouble is where you have somebody like Denny Rehberg in Montana, which is really a Republican state, that ran against the Ryan budget. And so people look at that and say, well if you're going to be against the Ryan budget I'll vote for the guy that's really against the Ryan budget, the Democrat. So if Republicans just, I think, present a more convincing contrast, based on what Republicans say they believe, they're fine. They can win anywhere. Pat Toomey can win in a blue state like Pennsylvania. Marco Rubio can win in a purple state like Florida. Jeff Flake can win in a very tough election in Arizona. Nobody wonders what they believe. They're clear and convincing, and I think voters appreciate that.

John Dickerson: How do you distinguish what you're doing with elections with what Karl Rove is trying to do?

Chris Chocola: The only thing that matters to us is what the candidate believes, and whether they have core beliefs based on pro-growth policy, economic issues only is what we do at the Club for Growth. What Karl Rove and some of the establishment groups only care about is the brand. They only care if someone's a Republican or not. They don't really care what their core beliefs are. I think voters actually care what the core beliefs are. And if you go to a grocery store and you have a box of cereal that just has that brand, but you don't know what's inside, you know you're not going to be too enthusiastic about buying it. But if you know what's inside every single time, you know you're going to become a loyal supporter of that brand. I think they've gotten the brand loyalty kind of backwards. The principle and the beliefs create the brand, not the other way around.

John Dickerson: Anything else that is going on today that's on your mind that we should make sure we give you a chance to say?

Chris Chocola: You know this whole sequester fight is, you know, is indicative of part of the problem. The reason we have a $16 trillion debt is because politicians worry about being popular, not taking the risk of leadership. This is an opportunity for Republicans to take the risk of leadership. To prove that we can have responsible reductions in the size of government. You know they have the CR battle coming up. And then ultimately it's the debt ceiling fight that will probably determine whether Republicans have the opportunity to convince the American people that they're different and they really believe in the things they say they believe.

John Dickerson: How are they doing on that convincing job in your estimation?

Chris Chocola: Well they didn't do so well in the last election, but you know, redistricting has put Republicans in the House in a very strong position. It would be hard for them to lose the majority in 2014 or 2016. But if they simply continually disappoint their base in not doing what their base expects them to do by presenting a contrast that they really are for limited government, fiscal responsibility and personal responsibility, they could lose the majority. And I think, you know, certainly President Obama wants to have all of Washington to himself in the last two years so he can implement what he thinks is the right thing to do. Republicans can't control government. They have, you know, one-half - one-third, of government. But you need three marbles to play this game, and they've got one of the marbles. And nobody can play without all three. So they do have leverage, they do have a position where they can present a contrast. And I think that's the best thing they can do--is say, we want less spending, they want more spending. We want less government, they want more government. We think that you can make your decisions, they think government should make your decisions. It's a pretty clear contrast, and if they stick to that I think they'll be in a good position going forward.

John Dickerson: How do you evaluate some of the efforts that Majority Leader Cantor is making, and some other people, Congressman Tom Cole talked about, in terms of repositioning the party in an era where, as you mentioned, the presidential election didn't go for the Republicans, polling shows the Republicans in Congress are not popular. How do you evaluate what they're doing?

Chris Chocola: I think it can overcomplicate things. I think simplicity is genius. I think you just have to do what you say you're going to do. Actions speak louder than words, that's what we always focus on at the Club for Growth. Politicians say lots of things, but it's what they do. And the voters and the American people watch what they do and there's a lot of noise going on in politics all the time. It's maybe even a little louder right now. But ultimately it's what they do. So they can try to re-brand, re-message, do all these things. But if they actually do what they say Republicans are supposed to do in achieving limited government and fiscal responsibility, that's going to go a long way. More than just trying to reposition yourself.

John Dickerson: Club for Growth focuses on economic issues, but there is a conversation going on within the larger Republican community on what role social issues should play in terms of keeping people focused on the main thing, keep the main thing the main thing. What's your view about, as a party and as a conservative trying to speak to the country, is there any danger in speaking on multiple channels about social issues and economic issues? How do you see that mix?

Chris Chocola: Again, at the Club for Growth we just focus on economic issues. But part of this kind of narrative after the last election is, you got this Akin and Mourdock problem. It's no mystery why they lost. It's obvious why they lost. They said things that were very inappropriate to say. And so, but you have a lot of Republicans that are social conservatives that can represent and talk about those issues appropriately. But you know, I think there's a unifying factor in economic issues. They're a very broad spectrum. You have people all over the country that believe in conservative economic issues. I don't think that Republicans should change or betray their views on foreign policy or social issues, but I think if they focus on the economic issues they can broaden their appeal. Because it is a very unifying kind of issue from the standpoint of: I know people in New York that would probably never vote Republican, but they are economic conservatives. And so the membership of the Club for Growth is a broad spectrum group. We disagree on social issues and foreign policy and sometimes immigration, but on economic issues we all agree and we focus on those things. And I think there is a way to pull people together. Because after all, if we don't get the economic things right, Mitch Daniels took some grief for saying this, but if we don't get the economic issues right, our country is not going to survive. And that's a pretty important thing.

John Dickerson: Great. Congressman, thank you.