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Last updated: Tue. Dec. 18, 2012 - 07:42 am EDT

COLUMN

Stutzman: 'Difficult' year requires Republicans to keep principles, soften message

But that will be tough in emotional debate over gun control, 'fiscal cliff'

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Despite what he conceded has been a difficult year for his party, U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman insists there's nothing wrong with Republicans' conservative brand better candidates and a kinder, more-sensitive message can't correct.

Looming battles over gun control, the so-called “fiscal cliff” and other emotionally charged issues are about to test that theory, however, and not even Stutzman seems convinced that the GOP's tarnished image can be restored.

“We're in a box,” said Stutzman, R-3rd, who will begin his second full two-year term in January. He was talking about Republicans' lack of appealing options in their budget negotiations with President Obama and congressional Democrats, but he could just as easily have been talking about last week's carnage at a Connecticut elementary school. In those cases and others, the media-driven image of Republicans as emotionally detached, Scrooge-like apologists of the rich and powerful will only be reinforced unless the party abandons its principles or finds a way to communicate more effectively than it did before and after last month's elections.

Stutzman clearly prefers the latter approach.

“States already have gun laws. The shootings in Columbine, of (former Rep.) Gabby Giffords and now this were all committed by people who were messed up,” said Stutzman, who vowed to resist the inevitable stampede for tougher federal regulations in the wake of nearly 30 deaths at Sandy Hook school. “And we don't have a tax problem,” he added, resisting calls to increase rates on the wealthiest Americans as a way to avoid the “cliff's” automatic end-of-the-year spending cuts and across-the-board tax hikes.

Intellectually, Stutzman has a strong case on both counts. Tougher gun laws can't compensate for the nation's failure to deal with the mental illness or moral sickness that contributes to violence, and tax increases will not solve its debt crisis. But because such positions are so easily caricatured as uncompassionate, conservative solutions must not only be sound in principle but empathetic, intelligent and articulate in presentation.

And it is there that Stutzman's analysis falls short, because if Republicans are indeed in a box, it is the party's uninspiring and unimaginative leaders – not its principles – who have put them there.

Stutzman recognizes that shortcoming well enough when analyzing President Obama's re-election victory over Mitt Romney. ”The nation again didn't want a president from (liberal) Massachusetts,” he said, referring to Democrats Sen. John Kerry and another former governor named Michael Dukakis. (Yes, Romney claimed Michigan as his home, but never mind.)

But Stutzman seems not to notice – or is unwilling to criticize – how his own congressional leaders have been outfoxed by Obama, who Stutzman suspects doesn't really want to avoid the fiscal cliff at all because “higher taxes and cuts to the military is the left's agenda.”

If a deal is not reached because Republicans refuse to increase rates on the richest Americans, they will be blamed – and should be. But if they boldly agree to higher rates in exchange for deep, specific and immediate cuts, not even the media could protect an intransigent president from bearing at least some of the political burden. Stutzman said he would consider such a deal; why won't Speaker of the House John Boehner and others push more aggressively?

Stutzman is, frankly, a much more thoughtful spokesman for the conservative cause than the official speaker is. He would protect people from gun violence not by passing ineffective feel-good laws that ignore the Constitution but by working to keep guns out of the wrong hands and by doing what he can to confront the sickness and evil that turns morally neutral objects into weapons of terror.

He also pointed out – it is so easy to forget these days – that federal spending cuts need not devastate the poor and helpless. Churches and private charities were doing that work, effectively and at less cost, long before Washington got involved.

With President Obama's personal likeability still high, Stutzman knows Republicans must find a forceful yet appealing messenger. Wisconsin congressman and vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan would look good at the top of the ticket in four years, he said, as would Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen.-elect Ted Cruz of Texas.

But the party's credibility may not survive that long if it doesn't rediscover its voice, and soon. As one of Indiana's most-senior representatives despite his short tenure, Stutzman should do his party and the nation a favor in the new year and resolve to become a more outspoken -- yet winsome -- advocate for conservative principles that are as necessary as they are easily misunderstood.

Three took the tickets

I recently reported that the Memorial Coliseum offered up to four free"Batman Live" tickets to about 15 public officials, including members of the Coliseum Board, County Council and County Commissioners.

Turns out three of them -- Councilman Darren Vogt, Coliseum Trustee Phil GiaQuinta and Commissioner Therese Brown -- accepted. As of Monday, however, only Vogt and GiaQuinta had disclosed their acceptance as required by the county's ethics ordinance.

kleininger@news-sentinel.com


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