December 24, 2005
2005 Man of the Year: Rep. Mike Pence

By Lawrence Kudlow

If the Republican majority in the Senate and House can somehow stave off a newly energized Democratic assault in the midterm polls next November and preserve their governing status, they may well have Indiana congressman Mike Pence to thank. It has been Pence and his roughly 100 colleagues in the House Republican Study Committee (RSC) who have almost single-handedly stopped the chronic GOP overspending of the past five years and forced the first full-fledged budget-cutting bill since 1997. In doing so, Pence and his dedicated band of principled House members have begun to force the GOP back to the first principles of lower taxes, limited government, a strong defense, and a fierce dedication to moral authority – including preserving the rights of the unborn.

For these reasons Mr. Pence has been chosen as the Human Events man of the year. As legislation is slowly rolling through Congress to restrain spending and extend vital pro-growth tax cuts, Pence and his pals have changed the thinking of their own House leadership as well as the president himself.

Recent polls suggest that this Republican rejuvenation is already posting dividends. Of course, the new budget is itself just a bare-bones beginning, but you have to start somewhere. Big-government conservatism has up to now ruled the roost during the Bush years in Washington, but Pence and his friends refuse to accept the notion that big government – or the siren song of central planning – will ever work any better under Republicans than it did under Democrats, whose policy past is littered with failure after failure.

Mr. Pence regards himself as “an unregenerate supply-sider” who believes in pro-growth and free-market economics. “Ronald Reagan got me into politics,” says Pence. “He was my role model.” That’s a good start. But Pence also counts economists Joseph Schumpeter, Henry Hazlitt, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Adam Smith among his tutors. His central aim is to marry supply-side tax reforms with strict spending restraint in order to expand the economy and get the budget into balance. That may put Pence and his comrades in the Washington minority these days, but the momentum just may be shifting their way.

Pence is a third-term congressman from Indiana’s sixth district, in the middle of the state. He ran twice unsuccessfully and then became a popular radio talk-show host, finally winning his seat in 2000. Like his friend and RSC colleague Jeff Flake, Pence ran a regional policy think tank – in his case the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, while for Flake it was the Goldwater Institute. Like so many of the RSC members – people like Jeb Hensarling, John Shadegg, Marsha Blackburn, and many others – successful political style is inseparable from policy content. That’s always a good combination for revolutionaries.

Pence describes himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.” But no one should confuse his self-effacing low-key style with even a hint of political squishiness. The Indianan was one of only a handful of Republicans to vote against President Bush’s fiscally bloated No Child Left Behind education bill, which raised Department of Education spending by 52 percent (and still counting).

He also voted against the outrageously expensive Medicare prescription-drug bill, making a bold final stand on the eve of the vote. In June of 2003, Pence and then House member Jim DeMint (now senator) were called to the Oval Office for a little chat with the president. As Pence tells it, Bush opened the meeting by saying, “Pence, what’s your problem with this bill?” Bush had also done his homework, and knew that Pence’s 10-year-old daughter Charlotte was having a birthday party later that afternoon. But the charm offensive failed. “I was willing to vote for prescription-drug assistance up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line,” Pence says, “but I would not support a new middle-class entitlement.”

He was taken to the woodshed by the House leadership at the time, just as he was earlier this year when he and the RSC launched “operation offset” -- a budget-cutting response to growing public clamor that new savings had to be found to pay for the $62 billion Hurricane Katrina assistance plan. While then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was proclaiming that Republicans had cut all the fat in the federal budget, Pence, Hensarling, and their group developed a breathtakingly bold plan that would lower the federal spending baseline by $102 billion in 2006 and by $950 billion over 10 years. Think of it as the no-wasteful-program-goes-unnoticed approach to budget pruning.

With $300 billion deficits as far as the eye can see, Pence & Co. ripped through subsidies, redundancies, pork barreling, farm aid, corporate welfare, and many other tougher choices in order to completely reprioritize and reform federal spending. The plan amounts to a federal budget upheaval that reminds me of what’s going on in Detroit, Michigan, where automakers Ford and GM are closing dozens of plants in painful measures that are necessary to keeping those ailing companies afloat.

I often wonder, Where are the announcements of federal-budget-plant closings in Washington? Departments and agencies that in some cases were literally founded centuries ago continue to survive in the 21st century as though nothing has changed – as if the Google/Internet/information-age economy never occurred. But of course, everything has changed, and that is what Pence and his pals are trying to say. Not just on the spending side, but on the tax-reform side as well. Pence insists that President Bush’s tax cuts on personal income, capital gains, and investor dividends – the ones that successfully reignited the U.S. economy in mid-2003 -- be made permanent. And that’s not all. “Taxes are too high,” says Pence, “and paying taxes is too complicated.” Down through the years, Pence has been supportive of a Dick Armey/Steve Forbes-type flat tax, but lately he has been looking at the fair tax that would abolish the Internal Revenue Code altogether. He is, however, opposed to anything that smacks of a European-style value-added tax system.

Finally, Mr. Pence is a church-going evangelical who believes that “the sanctity of human life is the central axiom of Western civilization.” He supports traditional marriage and he refuses to accept gambling money for his campaigns. His faith sustains and supports him through all the tough political decisions. “You know,” he tells me, “my M.O. is to vote Right and then go home for dinner.” Good advice.

Often talked about as a potential Speaker of the House and a candidate for Majority Leader, Pence is somewhat coy about his ambitions. So far he has refused to run for either of these spots publicly, but he has privately told friends he would be open to a draft. Certainly, Pence is the kind of new blood that the GOP needs if it is to follow through on a return to the first principles of budget and tax cutting -- along with protecting the unborn and spreading freedom and democracy worldwide in order to gain victory over the terrorists.

Mike Pence is delivering classical truths dressed in new clothes. Is his style working? The early political results are positive. But for a sclerotic Washington GOP, much more work has yet to be done – although it’s increasingly clear that Pence and his cohorts are just right for the job.

In selecting their man of the year for 2005, Human Events made an outstanding choice.

Lawrence Kudlow is a former Reagan economic advisor, a syndicated columnist, and the co-host of CNBC's Kudlow & Company. Visit his blog, Kudlow's Money Politics.

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