What Republicans must do -- Interview with Andrea Tantaros -
Bill Steigerwald

Not many political commentators on the nightly cable channels can boast of being proficient in Spanish, French and Greek, but Andrea Tantaros can. A regular on the Fox News Channel, CNN, CNBC and MSNBC, Tantaros is a communications specialist and Republican strategist whose extensive experience includes working in the campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and serving as deputy press secretary to former Pennsylvania Congressman Pat Toomey. To find out what she thinks her fellow conservative Republicans must do to recover from their battering in November, I spoke to her by telephone from her office in New York City:

Q: Republicans have their work cut out for them, obviously. What's Step Number One on the road to recovery?

A: Step one is to realize the mistakes that we have made over the last eight years. Usually step one in a recovery is admitting that you have a problem. I think that's an important thing for the Republican Party to do: One, admit that we have a problem; look introspectively at how we can fix it and understand why we were crushed in the last election cycle.

I also think the party needs to work on a couple different fronts. There are so many fault lines within the party: conservative vs. moderate, the more fiscally minded Republicans vs. the more socially minded Republicans, the Old Guard -- the sort of Newt Gingrich-Karl Rove Republican -- vs. the New Guard -- the Michael Steele-Sarah Palin sort of emerging sect of the party. And the party has to decide what direction it's going to go in.

Q: What do limited-government, fiscally prudent old-time conservatives have to do to reassert themselves in the GOP?

A: Well, when we've just witnessed the largest government expansion at the fastest rate this country has ever seen, it's fairly hard to argue for small government at this stage because the people don't seem to want it anymore. But conservatives need to figure out a way to motivate by reason and persuade through emotion. Meaning that when they talk about our issues, it can't come from a selfish place -- "Give me a tax cut. Where's my tax cut." We have to get back to that "shining city on the hill."

I think Republicans forgot how to communicate with the American people. It was eight years of what I like to call "message constipation," where we weren't connecting and we weren't making our case, and the Democrats -- even though their policies are wrong -- were able to communicate them in a noble way. Republicans have to do that.

Republicans also have to start to look at talent recruitment. Eight years ago, Barack Obama was a no-name state senator. So I think we need to look outside the Beltway and start to look at a younger, more diverse pool of people and tap them to run for office.

We also need to tap into new issues. There's a way to resurrect the sound policies of our party, but also to look toward new issues -- kitchen-table issues, like the rising cost of education. I think that's a winning issue for Republicans.

Q: Does the current economic crisis hurt or help the conservatives' political goals?

A: It depends on how they handle it. I think the liberals are going to try to blame -- and they already are -- this entire mess on the Right and on President Bush. I think Republicans dropped the ball on actually articulating why we got into this economic mess, but it's not too late.

It's also not too late to stand up and start asking tough questions in Congress. Meaning that, you just don't let Democrats jam through a $1 trillion stimulus without asking, "What is this going to do to our currency? What is this going to do to inflation? What if China decides to just stop buying up our debt?" Maybe that is the best thing that could happen to us -- like the parents cutting off the kids' allowance.

Q: Who do you see out there who could be a national leader that could emerge to ask these questions?

A: I think a New Guard-type of Republican -- Eric Cantor is a rising star in the party. Michael Steele is running for Republican National Committee chairman. Our selection for RNC chairman will say a lot about the direction this party wants to go in.

Q: If you were to advise a conservative Republican candidate for Congress in 2010, what would you tell him to stress and what to avoid?

A: I think we need to start to play "small ball" in 2010, which means start with winning a couple key seats and build momentum from there. Republicans are telling ourselves, "Oh, we're going to take over in a huge landslide. Wait. Wait just two years." I don't think that's going to be enough. Play small ball. Get back to basics. I would say that you need to be a conservative, but you need to maintain your independent streak.

You also need to show a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to impropriety. That's one of the things, again, that Republicans left on the table as a missed opportunity.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at bsteigerwald@tribweb.com.