Preaching the wisdom of Reagan in the age of Trump

Rep. Robert Pittenger reminds the Freedom Caucus that it’s time for Republicans to govern

PEMBROKE, N.C. – It’s not every day that a politician describes himself as being both a conservative in the mold of Jesse Helms and a “good friend” of the progressive Muslim congressman Keith Ellison. But Rep. Robert Pittenger, who offered this incongruous confession, isn’t a typical politician. 

He looks like a typical politician — a typical Republican politician, to be more precise. He’s old, white, male and rich, with a net worth of over $14 million made during a career as a real estate investor. 

But Pittenger’s practical approach to governance seems atypical in today’s political climate. In an odd way, that approach may be exactly what Republicans in the Trump era need, as my twin brother, Jordan Allott, and I learned while traversing part of Pittenger’s district with him in March.  

We met up with Pittenger in downtown Lumberton, a city of 21,000 in Robeson County, North Carolina. This is Pittenger’s third term representing the state’s 9th congressional district but his first representing Robeson County, which was one of several counties that were included in the district after court-mandated redistricting last year. 

Pittenger met with a group of 13 local political and business leaders at Adelio’s Italian restaurant. Over lunch of eggplant parmesan and lasagna, each got to ask Pittenger one question. 

Many focused on local concerns. A leader of the Lumbee Indian Tribe asked about federal recognition for his tribe, which Pittenger supports. The head of the Lumberton tourism board talked about the challenges of boosting business in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. “See me as your client,” Pittenger told the group. “I’m here to advocate for you.”

The meeting took place less than a week after House Republicans had unveiled their Obamacare repeal and replacement bill, the American Health Care Act. It was already meeting resistance from conservative hardliners, but it had not yet been withdrawn for lack of sufficient votes to pass it. Pittenger made it clear that he supports the bill and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s efforts to shepherd it through the legislative process. “I’m really proud of our speaker,” he said. 

The CEO of a healthcare company raised the issue of Medicaid, the expansion of which the Republican bill would have ended. She said a large portion of Robeson County residents rely on the health care program for poor people. Pittenger focused his response mainly on ways the AHCA would mitigate Medicaid fraud, such as the introduction of work requirements for able-bodied recipients.

He had harsh words for congressional conservatives, members of the House Freedom Caucus, who characterized the legislation as “Obamacare 2.0” and its supporters as insufficiently conservative. “I’m a Jesse Helms conservative, [but] my way or the highway is not governing,” Pittenger said. “Pontificating in front of cameras is not governing.”  

Pittenger reminded the group that President Reagan had compromised to pass tax cuts and regulatory reforms that helped create jobs and boost the economy. “Reagan raised taxes 11 times and sat down with [Democratic Speaker of the House] Tip O’Neill.” Then, paraphrasing Reagan, he said, “If I can get 70 percent of what I want, I’ll take it.”

Pittenger picked up the same theme a few days later in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. He called out “certain opportunist legislators [who] run to the eagerly awaiting media cameras following Republican conferences or committee hearings and providing sound bites to create another attack story — often replete with half facts, inaccuracies or misinformation.” He said watching Republicans debate repealing and replacing Obamacare made him wonder whether Reagan himself would now be acceptable to them. “Does anyone remember that Reagan was a master of advancing his principles by looking for common ground and finding consensus?”

Back at Adelio’s, as an example of finding consensus, Pittenger cited his friendships with Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., with whom he is working on legislation to diversify the data that credit companies use to evaluate a person’s credit worthiness, and Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., whom Pittenger called, “another good friend of mine.”

After leaving the restaurant, we followed Pittenger to meetings with administrators at the Robeson County Community College in Lumberton and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. 

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Both stops were of the “meet-and-greet” variety. The schools’ administrators told Pittenger about their need for federal money for grants and health care training, and bragged about things they were doing well. Pittenger nodded encouragement. “You need to look at me as I’m your client,” he repeated at each meeting. ”I’m your advocate.”

As the congressman ducked into a meeting with UNC-Pembroke’s chancellor, his staff was trying to locate the nearest TV studio because Pittenger had been invited to discuss healthcare reform on Hardball with Chris Matthews. They couldn’t find a studio nearby. Instead, we sat and talked politics.

He called President Trump “a master negotiator” and asked, “How many of us would like to have been his business partner for the last 25 years?”

Then he returned to his favorite topic, the need for congressional Republicans to follow Reagan’s example by finding common ground with their opponents. “Some people are purists today. If you don’t do it all this way, then it’s not acceptable,” he said, taking another veiled swipe at the Freedom Caucus. 

“Well, you have to govern. You have to work with people across the aisle. You have to work with people in the other part of the capitol. We’re bi-cameral. You can’t just live out of your own silo. You have to be willing find consensus, find agreement.”

In late March, after Freedom Caucus opposition forced Republican leaders to pull their bill from the House floor, Trump took a harsher tone with conservative hardliners, tweeting, “The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!”

When I asked Pittenger about this in an email weeks after our talk in Pembroke, he again invoked Reagan. Governing involves compromise, he said. “President Reagan is the great conservative icon because he was willing to take the best deal available instead of always demanding 100 percent.”

Repetitive though they are, Pittenger’s constant invocations of Reagan serve a purpose. They remind his listeners of an era more than a generation ago when Republicans didn’t attack each other so much and did not impose rigid tests of ideological purity — an era when they knew how to govern.

Next: How Donald Trump won America’s most racially diverse rural county

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