Duke alum Paul Teller talks conservative advocacy
Paul Teller, Trinity ’93, is the executive director of the Republican Study Committee, a conservative caucus in U.S. House of Representatives. The RSC has about 165 representatives who aim to advance conservative constitutional principles, like limited government. As its head staffer, Teller has been described as one of Washington’s most influential conservative aides. The Chronicle sat down with Teller to discuss his politics and work on Capitol Hill.
The Chronicle: It seems like you have somewhat of an unusual background for a conservative—growing up in Long Island, receiving a liberal education. What forces contributed to the cultivation of your conservative ideology? Did your time at Duke impact your political convictions?
Paul Teller: Mom is liberal, Dad used to be more right of center, but, maybe with me out of the house, he’s more left of center now. Honestly, I wish I had a great answer for you. The example I always give is in seventh grade public school, they did this political simulation and gave everyone a questionnaire. Based on your answers, they grouped you into these ideological groups, and I was in the most far-right group even in seventh grade. So far before Duke, far before I even understood nuances of politics.
Duke helped me sharpen some ideas but also helped me basically build tolerance, meaning there were a lot of people who would say not so nice things at the time if you were wearing a Bush/Quayle button or sticker. Also it sharpens your pencil when you’re surrounded by people who disagree with you. That was educational, how to defend your ideas even if a professor and half of the class is disagreeing with you. It makes you realize you also have to have reasons. When you’re out there by yourself, people are going to challenge you so you can’t just say ‘I feel that way.’
TC: You’ve said in the past that the RSC values its conservative principles over Republican ideology. Can you talk more about that?
PT: This is a group that sees its role as trying to advance conservative constitutional principles like liberty and limited government, government doing less, private sector doing more. If that happens to align with what certain Republicans are pushing at a given moment, great, but if not, we’ll call it as we see it. During the George W. Bush years when he was sending budgets to the Hill that would show increases in spending and in the number of government employees, we would express very strong and very public disagreement. That was our members saying, ‘Yeah I’m a Republican, but not to the point of going against what I believe my principles are.’
TC: Can you describe a day in your life as RSC’s executive director?
PT: I don’t know if there is one. Every single day, it’s totally different because we have policy shop, communications shop and coalitions. We’re firing in so many different directions all the time, every day. We try to play in every single possible issue—things that are hot now, things that could become hot, something that’s maybe on the radar, something we’re trying to push on the radar. Some days we have a big coalition meeting and do lots of listening. Other days we’re more proactive where we have a press conference to show something we’re doing. We do lots of networking things, too. We try to be a connector, like the center of the bicycle wheel with our members as spokes around the edge and putting members together, and young folks coming out of college who want to work in politics and aren’t sure how to do it.
TC: What’s it like to be a leader in a more behind-the-scenes political powerhouse? How did you cultivate your own leadership skills?
PT: All the time we’ll think of something like a bill or amendment and we’ll just work behind the scenes, we’ll give it to a member and tell them to introduce it as their own—we won’t say a thing. Other times we do things that we brand, so it just varies. Generally we’re looking to get better known as a player, we’ve done a lot of coalition outreach and outreach with state governments and embassies. Our feeling is, let’s talk to everybody and let’s get ideas from everybody.
The organization itself has been around since the early to mid seventies—it definitely predated me. When I came to the Hill and was networking to try to find my first job, I came in touch with this group and they didn’t have a job for me at the time. I stayed in touch with them for about a year before they did have an opening. I knew this was a place I would want to work and would be a good fit for me. I stayed in touch with them and they created a new position and just put me right into it. That was back in 2001. Because we’ve also grown in membership over the years, and members pay dues, we’ve been able to hire more staff. That just allows you to do more stuff—we can separate things out more and do more things. That’s what’s very satisfying about this job, you can think of things and make it real because we have so many members who would be interested in something and good staff relations all over Washington and outside Washington.
TC: In your opinion, have there been positive changes since Tea Party candidates were elected in the 2010 midterm elections? Do you think more conservative candidates will prevail in the 2012 election?
PT: The main positive change is that it’s now cool to cut spending again. Not that much has been cut—we’re still working on that. It’s at least more socially acceptable to say you’re going to cut something. In the past, even in Republican circles, say under George Bush, you talked more about controlling the growth of something.
It looks like Republicans will keep the House and the Senate could go either way, and obviously for the White House, same thing. I think either way, it’s been kind of more of a long term shift within Republican circles to say we really have to talk about how much we’re cutting, what we’re cutting, not whether we’re cutting. That wasn’t the case even just a few years ago.
TC: Do you think the RSC’s frequently extreme stances on issues create pragmatic solutions, especially when they lead not only to partisan feuds, but also to division within the Republican Party? I know during the 2011 debt ceiling crisis disagreements got so severe within the Republican camp that several more moderate House members even called for you to be fired.
PT: Debt is increasing, spending is increasing, size of government is increasing, poverty is increasing. To really reverse all these bad indicators we probably just can’t play around the margins anymore. For example this year we have more than a trillion dollar deficit, so there have to be some big reform ideas. Our members feel like those big type of ideas tend to come out of the more ideological wings of both parties, not so much the moderate wings who maybe wouldn’t be as comfortable with bolder solutions.
[The Republican Party is] almost like a family. If you think about it, who can you get angriest at in the world? Your own family or your closest friends because they have the biggest ability to disappoint you. Intraparty fights can be really contentious because you’re supposed to be family and that’s who can most disappoint you, that’s who you thought was working on the same side as you. That’s where some of that came from last year, some conservatives in the Republican party feeling like either we shouldn’t be raising the debt ceiling or if we’re going to raise it, let’s at least get something good from it, some real cuts to systemically improve where we’re going.
TC: Was the RSC happy when Romney chose Ryan to be his running mate? If the Romney-Ryan ticket were to win, do you think the RSC’s influence would increase in Washington?
PT: Paul Ryan’s the first current RSC member to be selected as vice president. We’ve had former RSC members like Quayle, Kemp and Cheney, who were all RSC members when they were in Congress but when they were picked for vice president, they had done other things since then. This is the first actual current, sitting RSC member to be plucked out as a VP candidate, so we took some pride in that. Especially because of all members, he’s been a really active member—we wrote a tax reform plan with him.
I think a lot of our members feel like we wouldn’t expect them to take everything we want, but we’d at least have more of a voice and an easier time getting an audience.
TC: Does who is in office or who has majority in Congress affect the RSC’s agenda? How does the RSC determine which issues to prioritize?
PT: It’s more the tactics that change, majority versus minority. If you’re in the majority, your tactic is much more how do we get bills to the floor because our party controls the floor. If you’re in the minority you know your stuff’s not getting to the floor, so let’s just put out things that are great messaging pieces. In terms of our actual agenda, not really. We’ll have an easier time if Romney gets in, but it wouldn’t change what we push.
Whoever the chairman is tends to shape the direction of where we’re going, what issues are highlighted. Staff can affect that, the chairman, whoever’s an active member and comes to every meeting.
TC: How does the RSC balance social and fiscal concerns when setting its agenda? Both concerns are clearly apparent in you Anti-Poverty Initiative, for example.
PT: Unfortunately we’ve gotten this reputation of not caring for the poor. We do, we just have different solutions. We may not want to just hand out checks to everybody or increase government spending on welfare, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have solutions. So we said let’s create this initiative that highlights what we would consider solutions—private sector solutions. There’s an economic angle, but much more a social angle, talking about community development and mentoring and fatherhood. In a lot of cases we just want to highlight what individual folks, organizations, communities or churches are already doing.
TC: Do you think private sector solutions have equal access? For example, an impoverished family living next to a church could benefit from that organization’s aid, but a family living in a rural area would not be privy to the same help. What types of incentives would your plan provide to private sector entities?
PT: We’re definitely not pretending we have all the answers or even that all the answers are out there, we just figure it’s a little bit of a public-private partnership, they may have ideas for legislation that we can do but again most of that legislation would be things about how the federal government could facilitate something but not actually do it or incentivize folks to do private sector things. An example of an incentive would be tax credits, but there’s a split in conservative circles over the notion of tax credits. Some might say let’s give tax credits for businesses that open in impoverished areas. Others might say aren’t we trying to smooth out the tax code? Meaning not as many deductions, lowering rates but trying to get rid of favors and complexity in the tax code. At this point our initiative would try to highlight and point to the positive benefits of free enterprise, the moral and economic benefits you get out of that and just using that pulpit to highlight great ideas. Not necessarily doing it ourselves, but saying if you do it you’ll have your efforts amplified by folks who have a mouthpiece. For now it’s less financial incentives and more social incentives.
TC: What issue do you find most interesting in this presidential election?
PT: I kind of like how entitlement reform is playing out. Almost the very nature of the word conservative is supposed to mean go slow, no big change. But it seems like on entitlements, at least this election, things have flipped with conservatives saying we need bold reforms. We need to change the structure of how payments go out and who’s eligible, whereas you have some democrats saying don’t touch it. It breaks the mold a little bit.